Playoff hockey begins this Sunday with the first round of the Big Ten Tournament taking place at Compton Family Ice Arena on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Michigan State (7-17-2) will be featured in the second game of the day against the second seed Minnesota (20-6-0).
As the last seed, MSU hobbles into the tournament on a six game losing skid with their last win Feb. 15 against Arizona State. They have also gone nearly two months without a win in the Big Ten with their last one coming Jan. 24 against Ohio State.
But unlike normal times, the format for this year’s tournament is single elimination, meaning all it could take is one strong performance or a little puck luck to advance.
“We are definitely going to hopefully take some of that ‘Izzo March magic’ and bring that over to the hockey squad,” senior forward Tommy Apap said on Friday. “It’s March, anything can happen and like you said ‘one game at a time.’ Basketball is big time upsets all the time and that’s what we are looking at. We want to upset not just one team, we want to upset three teams and we want to win that tournament.”
The Golden Gophers and the Spartans have met four times this year with Minnesota winning all four games. Only one of those games was particularly close, and that was back in early December when the two teams were tied at two goals each 30 minutes into the game.
But that is what can make this game a trap for Minnesota. If they get carried away and start looking ahead to the second round, that is when things can get dicey.
“They’re looking for hope, and if you give them hope and you’re not ready to go and you make some mistakes they will play off that hope,” Minnesota Head Coach Bob Motzko said on the dangers of Michigan State. “Our league is not very forgiving. If they were in a lot of other leagues their record would be a whole lot different than it is now.”
Senior goaltender Jack LaFontaine has been terrific in net for the Gophers, the likely eventual winner of the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year award. They also have a strong defense led by freshmen Brock Faber and a high-powered offense with lots of goal scoring threats. For MSU to pull off the upset, they will have to be sound on nearly every aspect of the game.
Luckily for Michigan State, they are coming off of one of their best outings in a long time. Even though it ended up being a 2-1 loss to Wisconsin, the Big Ten regular season champions, MSU hung in there and played well enough to win with the game tied going into the third period. The Spartans also broke a brutal scoreless drought that spanned over 200 minutes long.
Apap said that game has given them some momentum going into the tournament.
“We have confidence now that we can make plays and attack the net and create more opportunities, which before we weren’t,” Apap said. “We were getting so many chances against and not a lot for. That’s definitely something is our mentality, our confidence going into the game that we can make plays on top teams.”
If Michigan State loses, their season will be over as they very likely will not earn an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand if Minnesota loses, their season may not be done yet as they have positioned themselves well to potentially earn a bid for the NCAA Tournament.
The first round starts Sunday at noon as the host, Notre Dame, takes on Penn State. The puck drops for MSU’s game at 4 p.m. with Michigan and Ohio State capping off the day with an 8:30 p.m. start. All games will be broadcasted on Big Ten Network.
The winner between MSU and Minnesota will face the winner between Michigan and Ohio State on Monday at 8:30 p.m.
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