Neil Koepke is in his 26th year covering Michigan State hockey.
GopherSports.com: Neil, what is your take on the Spartans this year?
Neil Koepke: With a new coach, a different style of play and coming off a 10th-place finish in the CCHA, Michigan State is one of the league's surprise teams. After 12 games, the Spartans are 7-5 overall, 4-4 in the CCHA and 3-3 on the road against three teams which have been ranked in the top 20. MSU has played only four home games and just two in league play.
Coach Tom Anastos, a 1985 MSU graduate and the former CCHA commissioner, has the Spartans playing an aggressive, puck pursuit system and with a different mindset. They've improved their compete level, work ethic and even upgraded their skill level.
The Spartans still aren't what you would call a skilled team, but they love putting pressure on their opponents, forcing turnover and turning them into scoring chances and goals. For the last few seasons, MSU stressed defense and was more concerned about defending than attacking. That made scoring difficult.
This season, with almost the same team, the Spartans have scored 39 goals in 12 games, and ranked fourth in the CCHA, averaging 3.25 goals per game. The roster includes 15 seniors and juniors, and usually only three freshmen are in lineup.
The team's top scoring line has sophomore Lee Reimer (6 goals, 11 assists, 17 points ) at center with senior Mike Merrifield (7-3-10 ) on left wing and sophomore Greg Wolfe (4-8-12) on the right. Reimer is tied for second in CCHA overall scoring. Last season, Reimer had two goals and seven points, Wolfe had three goals and 11 points, while Merrifield scored four times and finished with eight points.
Senior forward Brett Perlini is MSU's top returning scorer. He had 18 goals and 30 points as a junior and this year has three goals and 10 points.
The Spartans most talented player is junior Torey Krug, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound puck-moving defenseman and the team's second-year captain. As a sophomore, Krug had 11 goals and 28 points, was a first-team All-CCHA selection and the league's top offensive defenseman. After 12 games this year, he has four goals and nine points.
One of MSU's strengths is in goal with senior Drew Palmisano and sophomore Will Yanakeff. Palmisano is 2-3 and Yanakeff, who has started the last four games, is 5-2.
The Spartans will face the Gophers on Friday with two key players missing - Krug and Wolfe. Both were assessed game disqualifications penalties for facemasking and fighting, respectively, during a game-ending skirmish at Northern Michigan last Saturday. Both will return on Saturday.
GS: Who is one player that Gopher fans should pay extra attention to?
NK: Junior defenseman Torey Krug is a potential NCAA West All-America. He's a high-energy player, runs the power play, has a great shot from the point and logs lots of ice time. However, Gophers fans won't see him Friday because of a game DQ handed out last Saturday. He'll be back on Saturday and will be eager to face the Gophers in what could be the last time he faces Minnesota. Krug is a free agent and is expected to have 10-15 offers from NHL teams after the season, so there's a good chance this is his last year in the program.
GS: Finish this sentence for us. Michigan State will win if ...
NK: Goaltenders Will Yanakeff and Drew Palmisano play at a very high level and deliver several spectacular saves, and the forwards and defense limit odd-man rushes. The Spartans will still try to play a skating game and be creative in the offensive zone, but there will be times when the focus will be trying to be a difficult team to play against. MSU did a good job of keeping up with Boston College in the season opener in the Icebreaker Tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., but the Eagles' speed and skill forced a few Spartan mistakes in the third period and BC broke a 2-2 tie and pulled away for a 5-2 victory.