After finishing the regular season with a 7-23-4 overall record (3-14-3-1 Big Ten), the MSU hockey team will begin the post-season as a sixth seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will face No. 3 seed Ohio State University in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament Thursday evening. This will be the fifth matchup this season between the two teams.
The Spartans went 1-3 against the Buckeyes this season, falling to Ohio State in a pair of one-goal games in the opening series Feb. 17-18 before proceeding the weekend sweep with a series split on the road March 3-4.
Thursday’s contest is the third time in four seasons the Spartans will face the Buckeyes in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. MSU is 0-2 against the Buckeyes, falling in overtime in both games.
The Spartans have an all-time record of 88-64-8 at Joe Louis Arena and hold the edge in the all-time series against the Buckeyes with a 89-37-12 record.
“Ohio State’s got a good team,” head coach Tom Anastos said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence. We played them a lot as of late. They had a very successful weekend out in Madison, and I think they’re deep up front, their goaltending has been consistent for them down the stretch.”
Buckeye head coach Steve Rohlik said MSU, who is coming off a loss and a tie against No. 1 seed Minnesota last weekend, has been playing great hockey recently.
“We’re trying to get prepared to play our best hockey game,” Rohlik said. “Obviously, I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom and his program. Anyone that can look at what our two teams have done over the last few years, it’s been overtime or one goal games every night. I would expect exactly the same Thursday.”
The Buckeyes finished the regular season first in the NCAA in total goals with 144 and power play efficiency, converting on 46 of 146 attempts on the man-advantage. Ohio State ranks third in the nation in goals scored per game with four.
“The biggest thing for us is we just got to continue to keep getting better in a lot of areas as far as our discipline, and I say that with our systems and what not,” Rohlik said. “We respect them. We understand they play hard.”
Redshirt-freshman defenseman Jerad Rosburg said the Spartans’ penalty kill efficiency will be key to advancing Thursday night.
“They have one of the best power plays in college hockey, so I think getting their power play under control and knowing how to defend it and trying to stop them, staying out of the box, being disciplined is going to be big,” Rosburg said. “And then, they’re a very offensive team. They like to fly the zone a lot and we’ve got to be prepared to make sure we keep track of everyone on the ice and not let anyone behind us and just play the way we can and when we win, we’re keeping things simple, getting pucks in the net. So I think if we do those things, we’ve got a good chance to win.”
Senior forward Joe Cox said despite the feeling of a new season, the mentality and game plan of playing the Buckeyes is the same as it has been all season, especially preventing the Buckeyes’ power play success.
“Although we’re going to act like it’s a new season — obviously, we’ve played them four times — we kind of know their tendencies and everything,” Cox said. “And I thought the last game we played against them, I thought we actually did a really good job except for our penalty kill.”
Sophomore forward Mason Appleton finished the regular season as the Spartans’ leader in points with 30 and goals with 12, while tying with freshman forward Taro Hirose for a team-high 18 assists.
With a goal and four assists during the last four games, the 6-foot-2 forward is averaging a point in each game through the last 11 contests.
The Green Bay, Wis. native is the Spartans’ active leading scorer against Ohio State with a goal and nine assists for 10 points in nine-career games. Meanwhile, freshman forward Sam Saliba’s four goals against Ohio State are the most of any current Spartan.
“I think Ohio State is a little more high-risk, high-reward than any other team in the Big Ten,” Appleton said. “And nothing against that — obviously, it’s worked out well for them — so they’re a team that’s going to cheat the zone here and there for offensive opportunities. I think we can take advantage of that with strong defense and then transitioning and create offense off of that.”
Appleton said developing a layer of consistency is an instrumental part of the team’s success in the conference tournament.
“Definitely consistency is going to be big for our game,” he said. “We got to play three full periods. We can’t have a five minute lull or anything along those lines because usually those games don’t end up the way you want them.”
The Spartans have played each team in this year’s tournament four times this season. Anastos said the opportunity to play each conference opponent numerous times over the span of the regular season leaves MSU with no surprises during the preparation process.
“You’re certainly very familiar with those teams and as they are with you,” Anastos said. “So from a preparation standpoint, it’s not like there’s going to be a whole lot of surprises, and in a bracket type format like we’re in, it’s kind of easy to figure out who the potential opponents are that you’re going to play.”