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Column: With 4 straight losses, NCAA tournament hopes are fading fast for Michigan State hockey

January 18, 2022
<p>Spartans hockey fell to the Western Michigan Broncos in their match at Munn Ice Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. The Broncos held their lead against MSU through all three periods, ending the game with a final score of 3-1. </p>

Spartans hockey fell to the Western Michigan Broncos in their match at Munn Ice Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. The Broncos held their lead against MSU through all three periods, ending the game with a final score of 3-1.

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

With a winning record, a few sweeps and signature wins under their belt, things were looking up for the Michigan State Spartans just a couple of weeks ago.

Then came the drop.

Four straight losses have soured the team’s momentum and the Spartans find themselves in a familiar position in the Big Ten standings at second to last.

NCAA tournament hopes are starting to look grim.

Last weekend, the Spartans were swept at home by the Golden Gophers. In Friday night’s matchup, the offense had trouble matching the speedy Minnesota forwards as the Gophers skated away with a 4-1 victory. Things looked promising the following night, but after holding a 3-1 lead late in the second, a couple of own-goals and a flurry of offense from Minnesota led to a 6-3 loss. 

Michigan State’s road series against Wisconsin was strikingly similar. The Spartans were outplayed Friday night as the Badgers scored a season high five goals in a 5-2 victory. On Saturday night, Michigan State held a 2-1 lead in the third period, but again, they shot themselves in the foot — this time with a five-minute major. Wisconsin scored twice on the ensuing power play and secured a 3-2 win.

The four conference losses have Michigan State slotted in at sixth in the Big Ten standings, just ahead of Penn State and just below Wisconsin. Even a home game in the Big Ten Tournament looks unlikely, as MSU is nine points behind Notre Dame.

The back-to-back sweeps have Michigan State in a free-fall in the pairwise rankings. Just a couple of weeks ago, MSU was a bubble team in the tournament, just outside the top 20. Now, the Spartans are slotted in at 29 (the second lowest ranking among Big Ten teams). 

For those still willing to drink the Kool-Aid, some hope still lies in the coming schedule. The blessing and the curse of playing in the Big Ten is that the opponents are some of the best teams in the country. For the next month, all of MSU’s opponents are in the top 15 in the pairwise. 

Perhaps the best opportunity to shoot up the rankings will be against the arch-rival Michigan Wolverines, who sit atop the Big Ten and come in at No. 2 in the pairwise rankings. The teams will clash twice — once in Ann Arbor and once at Little Caesar's Arena in Detroit. 

The Winter Olympics could also play a role in a bounce-back for the Spartans. After the NHL decided to opt-out, the national teams have turned to the NCAA to fill their rosters. Some of the top teams in the conference have players departing for the Olympics, including Michigan and Minnesota. With such important players out of the lineup, it is going to be tough for the teams at the top to fend off the rest of the Big Ten.

Of course there is always hope in the Big Ten Tournament. The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. However, the Spartans have never won a tournament. In fact, they have never been in the championship game.

With a one-and-done conference tournament and plenty of hockey left to be played, it would be premature to completely count the Spartans out of the NCAA tournament. But this four-game skid has them tumbling down the standings and the Spartans will have to turn things around quickly to regain momentum.

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