Sunday, December 4, 2022

Lots of hockey left, but MSU should be 'in'

Alex Difilippo

It was a good weekend for the No. 13 MSU hockey team.

And the Spartans didn’t even have any games on the schedule.

After a lengthy trip to Alaska, where the Spartans only were able to take a disappointing two of six points from the Nanooks, the icers had a much-needed week off to regroup and refocus.

In that time, MSU received some help in the standings to make the bye week just a little bit sweeter.

No. 14 Ferris State had a chance to leap-frog the Spartans and take sole command of second place in the CCHA standings. But Ferris State only was able to muster a split against Lake Superior State, putting the Bulldogs in a tie for second place with MSU with 43 points.

On top of the Ferris State split, Nebraska-Omaha swept Michigan. The Wolverines were fighting and clawing for a spot amongst the top four teams in the conference.

Prior to this weekend’s games, four points separated the fourth place team in the CCHA from the 10th place team. All CCHA teams are eyeing a spot in the top four, which guarantees a first-round bye in the CCHA Tournament and home ice in the second round.

In the last two weeks, the Pairwise Rankings — which represent the system used by the NCAA to select the teams for the NCAA Tournament — has been more unpredictable than this season’s episodes of “Lost.”

Sometimes, the Pairwise had MSU as a lock into the 16-team NCAA Tournament. Other times, the Spartans were a bubble team.

With this weekend’s results, it seems the Spartans are members of the “in” category for now. Still, there’s a lot of hockey to be played.

Let’s take a look at the last four games of the season for MSU, starting with the team’s final series of the season.

The Spartans will close out the regular season with a home-and-home set against last place Bowling Green. This is a great matchup for MSU.

Bowling Green only has won four games this season, three of which were in conference play. The Falcons also have allowed a conference-high 91 goals this season. MSU has allowed 54 goals.

A sweep would give MSU some momentum leading into the CCHA Tournament and should protect a top-four finish for the Spartans.

So let’s assume MSU will take care of business and earn the six points against Bowling Green.

That takes us to this weekend’s home-and-home series against Ferris State.

Ferris State has been reeling lately, winning only twice in its past 10 games after sporting a 10-game undefeated run earlier this season.

If MSU can sweep the Bulldogs — and the Falcons — the Spartans would lock up a second-place finish in the conference. This should be enough to earn a berth into the 16-team NCAA Tournament field, regardless of how the team performs in the CCHA Tournament.

Yes, major upsets in other conference tournaments across the country could complicate things if the Spartans are bounced in the second round of the CCHA Tournament. But if MSU can win its last four games and make it to Joe Louis Arena for the semifinals of the conference tournament, the Spartans should be an absolute lock into the “big dance.”

Now let’s take a peek at a more likely scenario.

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If MSU and Ferris State split this weekend (and again, MSU sweeps Bowling Green), things could become complicated.

The Bulldogs wrap up their season with a home-and-home series against Western Michigan, which sits in 11th place in the league, one point above Bowling Green and 15 points behind 10th place Notre Dame. So you have to figure Ferris State will close out the season with a sweep against the Broncos.

In this scenario, MSU will finish the year in the top four of the conference standings, but likely will need a deep run in the CCHA Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Remember, the team that wins the CCHA Tournament receives an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. So if anyone other than No. 1 Miami (Ohio), which clinched the regular-season title with five games remaining, wins the conference tournament, things might become dicey for the Spartans.

But even if the Spartans lose both games against Ferris State this weekend, as long as they can sweep Bowling Green, MSU should finish in the top four in the league and earn the valuable bye — giving the team a good chance to earn a NCAA Tournament berth with a solid performance in the conference tournament.

This weekend’s series against Ferris State is hands down the biggest test for the MSU icers this season.

The Spartans haven’t been playing their best hockey of late and these last four games could make or break their season.

Regardless, after last year’s 10-win catastrophe, who could have guessed the Spartans would even be vying for an NCAA Tournament bid?

Not me.

Alex DiFilippo is the State News hockey reporter. He can be reached at difilip3@msu.edu.

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