The Missouri State Ice Bears closed the book on the regular season this weekend against the University of Oklahoma. The last time these two teams met, the Ice Bears scored their first regulation victories at home versus the Sooners on Feb. 1-2.
Coming into the weekend series, MSU was the No. 13 team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. The club had been coming off a tough road trip to North Dakota where they lost all three games against the University of Jamestown and Minot State University, the Ice Bears were looking to head into the national tournament on a high note.
The biggest question for the past few months for Missouri State has been who head coach Jeremy Law is going to start on a given night. Law started Brendan Shuck on Friday night, who has gotten the least amount of playing time of the Ice Bears’ three goalies.
In the 2018-19 season, Shuck has played in 10 games, with a record of 8-1-0-0, a goals against average of 2.41 and a save percentage of .906. Shuck stopped 27-30 of shots faced. One of the Sooners goals came on the power play.
“I thought (Shuck) was great,” Law said. “Can’t fault him on the goals, one was a bad bounce off our own player. The others were two-on-ones with no back-checks.”
The Ice Bears were shut out on home ice for the second time this season, the other time coming back on Jan. 11 against Iowa State University. The offense struggled to gain momentum in the offensive zone all night. Special teams were ineffective as well, with the Ice Bears power play unit going 0-4 and giving up a short-handed goal late in the first period.
“We can’t win a game if we aren’t going to score on the other end,” Law said after the game.
One of the strengths for MSU this season has been the penalty kill; the club is killing nearly 85 percent of penalties this season. Two of the biggest keys to the success of the PK unit are defensemen Chris Brown and Brennan Anderson. The two have a combined +/- of +13 and while Anderson finds himself in the penalty box more than Brown, the defensive pairing has been a key to the Ice Bears’ success this season.
On Saturday night, Law started Bailey Stephens between the pipes. Stephens has not been the goalie that he was in 2017-18, where in 22 games he had a 2.54 goals against average and .925 save percentage. He was shaky in his final regular season start, giving up four goals on just 23 shots. He was pulled after just two periods for Brady Griffin.
“I didn’t think he was having a great game,” Law said. “I wanted to spark up the boys; we had to change something.”
Griffin has been the better of the three MSU goalies down the final stretch. In conference play, Griffin had a 1.96 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
The start of the third period was where the Ice Bears’ game changed. Coming into the period, they were down 4-2 and struggling to get anything going offensively.
Just 24 seconds in the final period, forward Matt Matyi cut the lead to one goal with his eighth of the season. The momentum then swung into MSU’s favor as they controlled the game from that point on.
With just under five minutes to play in the game, the team’s leading scorer Nikita Salnikov found the back of the net to tie the game at 4-4. After a questionable penalty to Anderson with 3:15 left in the game, forward Alex Turin collected a turnover in the neutral zone and scored a short-handed goal to give the Ice Bears their first lead of the game.
“Obviously, your backs are against the wall,” Law said. “So when we scored early, that kind of fueled our momentum. Getting that tying goal was huge … that short-handed goal from Alex was unbelievable.”
The Ice Bears’ offense looked like it had in earlier in the season, with the line of Jordan Bratton, Travis Barrett and Zane O’Bryan clicking Saturday night, Bratton scoring twice and Barrett picking up two assists.
The defense has been chipping in as well, with guys like Brown, Derek Smith and Sam Hiserodt picking up primary assists on three of MSU’s goals.
For the Ice Bears to take the success from this game into the national tournament, the power play is going to need to work out its kinks and Law is going to need to settle on a No. 1 goalie.