This weekend, Michigan State hockey heads down to Ann Arbor to face off against No. 5 Michigan in a best-of-three series to kick off the Big Ten tournament.
The regular season came to an end last weekend, as Michigan State finished the year with a 12-21-1 record (6-18 in conference play). After starting off the season with a solid 11-8-1 record, the Spartans went 13 straight games without a win.
MSU finally snapped the losing streak in the final game of the regular season, beating Penn State 2-1 at Munn Ice Arena on senior night.
"Going into playoffs, we know we can do it. I think it was good to get that clarification," senior defenseman Christian Krygier said.
Michigan State will need more than just confidence against its Big Ten tournament opponent. Michigan has dominated MSU in the 2021-22 season, sweeping the two regular season series by a combined score of 23-9.
"They play a very run and gun style — they like to have momentum, and speed, and the puck on their stick," Krygier said.
Michigan is one of the best teams in the nation. Powered by a lethal offense that's averaging 3.86 goals per game in the regular season, which is the third highest in college hockey, the Wolverines finished with a 25-9-1 regular season record. Consistently ranked as one of the top squads in nation throughout the year, Michigan dropped a bit to No. 5 after getting swept by Notre Dame last weekend.
In their last series against MSU, the Wolverines were missing a few important players who were participating in the 2022 Olympics, although that did not slow the offense. Now sophomore defenseman Owen Power, sophomore forward Matty Beniers, sophomore defenseman Brendan Brisson and sophomore forward Kent Johnson are all back in the lineup. Needless to say, all four are some of the best players in the nation that make an already deep Michigan squad downright terrifying.
In the absence of the Olympians, freshman defenseman Luke Hughes arose as perhaps the best player on the roster. With 16 goals and 16 assists, Hughes has the third most points on a roster chock-full of offensive firepower. He was especially effective against Michigan State, scoring three goals and three assists in just two games. Hughes has high puck-handling skill, impressive skating and a high-end hockey IQ. On the power play, he's a downright star, taking full advantage of any open space to create scoring opportunities.
This time around, Michigan State's roster will be bolstered by fifth-year forward Mitchell Lewandowski. Due to injury, the gifted winger has yet to play a single game against the Wolverines this.
Without Lewandowski in the lineup, Michigan State is 1-14. He's an important piece of the offense, especially on the power play. Lewandowski's skills as a playmaker are unique on the team and create a greater scoring threat on any line he's placed on. On the man advantage, he frequents the slot, drawing attention from opponents and opening up scoring chances all over the ice. For a team that struggles to produce on offense, averaging just 2.21 average goals per game, a forward like Lewandowski is an essential piece of the puzzle.
"It wasn't fun watching at Munn," Lewandowski said. "Then to watch again at LCA — not fun. I'm ready to get back in the lineup and play these guys."
It will take more than just an offensive boost from Lewandowski in the lineup to overcome such a talented Michigan squad. To pull off the upset, the Spartans goaltending and special teams have to be excellent.
Between the pipes, the Spartans have two excellent options: senior Drew DeRidder and sophomore Pierce Charleson. DeRidder has been stellar all season, holding a .924 save percentage through 25 games. Charleson has also been impressive, currently possessing a .908 save percentage in 17 appearances. In Michigan State's last Big Ten tournament appearance, the Spartans nearly pulled an upset thanks to an outstanding 46 save performance from Charleson. If Michigan State wants to pull the ultimate upset against its rivals this weekend, a positive contribution from the goaltenders is a must.
Special teams will also be a deciding factor in the series. Both penalty kill units are sure to get a good amount of use as Michigan is the most penalized team in the conference, and Michigan State is the second most. Quarterbacked by Hughes and Power, Michigan's power play is a top ten unit in the nation with .252 success rate is ranked ninth in the NCAA. Staying out of the box and taking advantage of penalties will be key for Michigan State.
Notre Dame's recent sweep of the Wolverines provides a bit of a blueprint for how Michigan State can pull off the upset this weekend.
"They [Notre Dame] just play hard. They're hard to play against. They bring it every night. They play a full 60 minutes. That's something we'll have to do," Lewandowski said. "We're not gonna turn it into a skills competition, but a man's game."
For Michigan, it is win the tournament or bust. For Michigan State, it is win the tournament or go home. In an already heated rivalry, the stakes are even higher. Expect fireworks.
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The series opening puck drop is set for Friday night at 7 p.m.. The game will be televised via FS2.
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