2015-16 MSU hockey season is "NCAA Tourney or Bust"
If there’s any green paint left over from the “green line” experiment, MSU hockey might as well scrawl “NCAA Tourney or Bust” across the walls of the locker room.
MSU is looking to return to the big time once again, and to regain the powerhouse standing it held when it reached 13 NCAA Tournaments in 15 years between 1993 and 2008. These Spartans could be the ones to bring the glory back to the program.
“I think we go to the tournament or bust,” senior captain Michael Ferrantino said. “There’s no reason we’re not doing it. We’re really confident and have a really good group here. A lot of talented players, so you know it’s NCAA Tournament or bust.”
Head Coach Tom Anastos would not come right out and say the season success would be measured by a spot in the tourney, but a closer examination of his words suggests the tournament, if not his measuring stick, is where he intends the Spartans to be at when the season concludes.
Though it is the goal of all 60 NCAA Division I Hockey teams to make the 16-team bracket style tournament, the Spartans have a very legitimate shot at claiming a spot in this year’s bracket.
Leaning on experience
With 20 returning players from last year’s second place finish in the Big Ten regular season, the Spartans are vying for their first trip to the tournament since the 2011-12 season.
All four letter-wearers return from last year’s team, making experience abundant throughout the depth chart. But as with any sport, the outlook on paper means nothing. The promises of experience will fall short if the team cannot produce.
In theory, production should not be a problem for a team chock-full of talent. Much of that talent resides in a third year class. Those juniors will need to be a key part if the Spartans are to return to the tournament.
“Our junior class, when they were freshmen, they were thrown right into it,” Anastos said.
The juniors have seen a lot of action and saw it early and often. It’s a junior class that will carry much of the workload for the Spartans. One particular junior and perhaps star of the team, MacKenzie MacEachern, who finished second in points on the team last season, will take to the ice more developed and mature, Anastos said.
MacEachern was left with a bad taste in his mouth when the Spartans fell short of the tournament, but has taken it upon himself to ensure it won’t happen again.
“Last year we tasted success toward the second half, so this summer I took that mentality and wanted to mold myself into a championship type player,” MacEachern said in a previous press conference. “I really took that personally this summer. I came back and feel really good.”
This stout junior class will have to continue where it left off if the Spartans are to return to the tournament.
“Guys will have to emerge,” Anastos said. “We will be giving guys some opportunity to play bigger roles. We’ll need some guys to step up. Even guys who have performed at a real high level so far will need to continue their growth.”
The young guns emerge
Perhaps the juniors won’t have to carry so much of the workload, as a highly-touted freshman class gets set to take to the ice under the Spartan banner.
“Our strength and conditioning coach, Mike Vorkapich, told me that they have demonstrated a work ethic and a standard of commitment that is as good as he can remember here for a freshmen group,” Anastos said. “Their test scores have been off the charts for incoming players.”
It’s a freshmen group that features some top talent. Zach Osburn, a defenseman from Plymouth, Mich., will provide a Torey Krug-like force, Anastos said. Mason Appleton, Cody Milan and Brennan Sanford each bring speed and offensive prowess that will bolster an already offensively strong group of forwards.
This group of freshmen will no doubt see a lot of minutes and has already started to leave their mark. With this much confidence in his young player’s ability, Anastos certainly will rely on his young guns to help carry the load and provide depth that will wear down opponents late in games.
Defense leads the way
There is no question that the old saying “defense wins championships” still holds up today across every sport. There is also no question the Spartan defense is as strong as ever with five defenseman returning from last year’s No. 1 ranked defense in the Big Ten (13th ranked nationally).
Adding to that, the Spartans were second in the nation in blocked shots and allowed only 2.29 goals per game. It’s a group MSU’s last line of defense, goalie Jake Hildebrand, has a tremendous confidence in.
Hildebrand’s backstopping of the Spartans may just be the center piece that completes this puzzle. After back to back years of slow starts but strong finishes for Hildebrand, he’ll be looking to continue his success throughout the whole year.
For a team that hasn’t been to the tournament since 2011-12, but has been to the tournament 24 times in the last 35 years, they’re looking to prove that MSU hockey belongs back with the big dogs, and that mentality starts with MSU’s last line of defense — Hildebrand.
“The year before I came in here was the last year Michigan State made it to the NCAA Tournament so I think that definitely says a lot that we want to get back there as soon as we can,” Hildebrand said. “With the whole turning the program around we talked about since I’ve been here, that’s one of the biggest things we need to do to make sure that people know Michigan State hockey is back.”