Friday, December 3, 2021

Column: Michigan State hockey can make noise in the Big Ten this season

November 17, 2021
<p>Junior left wing Erik Middendorf (24) prepares to take a shot at the Ferris State goal in the first period. The Spartans beat the Bulldogs, 2-0, in the final minutes of the game on Nov. 11, 2021. </p>

Junior left wing Erik Middendorf (24) prepares to take a shot at the Ferris State goal in the first period. The Spartans beat the Bulldogs, 2-0, in the final minutes of the game on Nov. 11, 2021.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

Michigan State is in a familiar position in the Big Ten Hockey standings at second to last.

After a series split with Ohio State and a two-game sweep courtesy of Michigan, MSU has a 1-3 record in conference play. The last time the Spartans finished in the top half of the standings was 2014-15, where they placed second, just behind the Wolverines. 

But this Michigan State squad has a chance to shock some in the standings.

Despite the less-than-stellar start to conference play, Michigan State still has a winning record a third of the way through the season at 6-5-1. The team’s last two games were against Ferris State, winning 2-0 in the first matchup and 4-3 in the second. Although it was not in the Big Ten, that non-conference series sweep proved a couple of things about the team. 

First, it proved Michigan State could win in multiple ways. Friday night’s matchup was a much more standard MSU; a fantastic performance from the goaltender and responsible defensive play ground out a 2-0 win. Do not fall apart on special teams, play responsibly offensively and rely on some great goaltending has been the formula for much of the season.

But Saturday, Michigan State flipped the script. They lost the special teams and relied on offense for the win.

Down 3-0 in the second period, Michigan State stormed back to win 4-3. MSU has had trouble scoring more than two goals per game all season; the team averages 2.25 goals per game, which is 45th in the nation. But, they scored three in the final seven minutes of the game. The Spartans might not do it often, but they have the ability to show up offensively when it is needed. 

“We’re a very versatile team,” junior forward Erik Middendorf said after Saturday’s comeback victory. “That’s something that the coaches and the older guys told us when we came in here, is we’ve got such a deep team that anyone can play with anyone on any given night ... you never know who’s going to score goals.”

The win also proved this squad has some fight in them. The Spartans entered the series on a three-game losing streak and a sub .500 winning percentage, yet they bounced right back. Saturday, they overcame special teams’ struggles and a three-goal deficit to skate away with a win. 

The Big Ten is one of, if not the best, hockey conferences in the NCAA. The schedule does not get any easier for Michigan State, as it is almost entirely conference play from here. Though, the Great Lakes Invitational in late December will include non-conference opponents. If MSU finishes in the top half of the conference standings, grit, team depth and versatility will be the driving factors.

In such a competitive league, the Spartans need more than outstanding goaltending and tough defense to finish near the top. They have shown much more in flashes this season — but they are still just flashes. With a bit more consistency, MSU is going to be a very tough out, especially come tournament time.

The upcoming series against Wisconsin will be an excellent indicator of just how good this MSU squad is. With two conference wins, the Badgers are fifth in the Big Ten — just above the Spartans. 

The two-game series kicks off in East Lansing Friday night, where the puck is set to drop at 7 p.m.

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