Hockey Spartans searching for answers to historic slide

David Goricki
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The Michigan State hockey team has gone from being one of the nation’s elite programs to one of its worst.

The Spartans, who won the national title in 2007, are 5-17-2, 1-14-1 in their last 16 games and ranked 56th out of 60 Division I teams in defense, allowing 3.62 goals per game.

So, what has gone wrong?

“It’s been for different reasons for different times, but the one thing that has been consistent is we haven’t given ourselves much margin for error and that makes it more difficult,” fifth-year coach Tom Anastos said. “We oftentimes look at the defensive end, but on the offensive end to be able to create a little more gap or when you do make a mistake and it costs you, it’s not fatal — that would be a nice way to deal with things, too.

“It’s certainly frustrating. Coming into this season I thought we had a good group and I stand by that. I think the group’s together. I think the leadership is doing a really good job in very difficult circumstances and I think we’re all looking for answers. And, that’s the good part, we’re all in it together and fighting through it together. Without a doubt, our guys, they don’t accept losing. They don’t feel good about it and we all know we’re disappointing everybody we represent and we have to fix it.”

The last time MSU had suffered two 20-loss seasons in a four-year stretch was 1980-81, Ron Mason’s first two years in East Lansing. Anastos is 66-92-18 and on pace to average 20 losses in his five seasons. Mason led the Spartans’ program for 23 years, guiding them to 635-270-69 record (.687) and 19 NCAA Tournament appearances, seven Frozen Fours and a national championship in 1986.

“It’s hard to disect when you’re not practicing with the guys and I don’t see the team at practice very much, but it just seems to me when push comes to shove, the other team gets the goals and that’s frustrating,” Mason said. “We’ve been in good shape in a lot of those games and haven’t been able to put them away. I guess it’s one of those things where maybe we just don’t have as much talent as we should, the depth isn’t there.”

Anastos was a surprise choice to replace the retiring Rick Comley. Comley guided the Spartans to the 2007 national championship and another NCAA tourney appearance in ’08, but the team finished 15-19-4 in his final season.

Anastos was a former longtime Central Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner and had little college coaching experience. He was an assistant on Mason’s staff at MSU from 1990-92 and head coach at Michigan-Dearborn from 1989-90.

This is definitely Anastos’s team now five years in and he is searching for answers. The Spartans have had trouble scoring during this 16-game stretch and have had more problems keeping the puck out of their own net, getting outscored by a 68-33 margin. And, the majority of the damage is coming in even-strength situations, since they have scored as many power-play goals (14) as they have given up.

“I really like Tom,” Mason said. “I think what he’s done for the program has been phenomenal. He’s been able to bring a lot of people back together and there’s a lot of support there for the team and this and that, but the problem with it is you have to win games and that’s the way it is in this business.”

Obviously the Spartans haven’t been winning, including embarrassing back-to-back losses to archrival Michigan, 9-2 and 6-3, this month. The nine goals were the most given up by the Spartans at Munn Arena in 30 years.

At times, the Spartans have been competitive. They held third-period leads in both Great Lakes Invitational games during the holidays at Joe Louis Arena, losing 3-2 in overtime to Michigan Tech, then 2-1 in overtime the next night to Northern Michigan.

Last Saturday in Minneapolis, the Spartans carried a 1-0 lead into the third period before falling 3-1 to give the Gophers a weekend sweep after they won 5-2 Friday. It was MSU’s eighth straight loss.

“Obviously this isn’t the season we were hoping for,” said senior defenseman Travis Walsh, a grandson of Mason who leads the Spartans with 76 blocked shots. “We’re just going to keep pressing to keep trying to do the little things to get better. It’s tough that we can’t close out a game, but we’re working on staying positive and when we do get a lead, we want to be confident with it and not change the way we play.”

The Spartans, who face the U.S. national development team on Saturday at Munn Arena, had entered the season with high hopes and one of the best goaltenders in the country in senior Jake Hildebrand, a first team All-American and Big Ten player of the year last season.

Hildebrand has a 3.39 goals-against average and .894 save percentage, giving up more than a goal per game from a year ago (2.18, .930).

“I just try to come and get better every day. I can’t pick out one thing that we really need to do to change things around except sticking with the process and making sure we get better every day. There’s definitely places I can clean up. I don’t think I’ve had the season I’ve wanted up to date. I think everybody can do things to get better.

“Winning seems to solve a lot of problems so I think winning would help this team a lot. I think scoring would help. We hit the post twice Friday and the puck went through the goalie’s five hole and squeaked out by the other side of the net. If those pucks go in, it’s a different game, then Saturday night it’s a game of inches. It’s tough, but you have to keep moving forward.”

Athletic director Mark Hollis has worked hard to improve Munn, installing new ice, new seating, a new scoreboard and new LED lights during the last few years. He would not address Anastos’ status, but says he knows how important the program is to the school.

“We’re putting a lot of focus on it. We’re looking at hockey and figuring out where we want to go,” Hollis said. “Something you have to consider is that this period of time saw a transition with the CCHA and the Big Ten. One team’s gonna finish first, and one will finish sixth.

“But hockey here and in the state of Michigan has had a great history, and it will have a great future. We’re up to the task. And we’re reviewing everything.”

Down times

Toughest five-year stretch in recent history, Amo Bessone’s last three and Ron Mason’s first two:

1976-77: 14-21-1 — Amo Bessone

1977-78: 7-27-2 — Amo Bessone

1978-79: 15-21-0 — Amo Bessone

1979-80: 14-24-0 — Ron Mason

1980-81: 12-22-2 — Ron Mason

Totals: 62-115-5

Tom Anastos’ five years

2011-12: 19-16-4

2012-13: 14-25-3

2013-14: 11-18-7

2014-15: 17-16-2

2015-16: 5-17-2

Totals: 66-92-18

Other times

Bessone’s final five years

1974-75: 22-17-1

1975-76: 23-15-2

1976-77: 14-21-1

1977-78: 7-27-2

1978-79: 15-21-0

Totals: 81-101-6

Mason’s first five years

1979-80: 14-24-0

1980-81: 12-22-2

1981-82: 26-14-2

1982-83: 30-11-1

1983-84: 34-12-0

Totals: 116-83-5

Rick Comley’s last five years

2006-07: 26-13-3

2007-08: 25-12-5

2008-09: 10-23-5

2009-10: 19-13-6

2010-11: 15-19-4

Totals: 95-80-23