Saturday, March 2, 2024

Idle weekend puts Michigan State hockey's future out of its control

February 23, 2023
<p>MSU hockey Head Coach Adam Nightingale looks up to the scoreboard during a game at Schottenstein Center on Jan. 7, 2023. The Spartans lost to the Buckeyes with a score of 6-0.</p>

MSU hockey Head Coach Adam Nightingale looks up to the scoreboard during a game at Schottenstein Center on Jan. 7, 2023. The Spartans lost to the Buckeyes with a score of 6-0.

Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

It’s crazy how big of a difference one point can make in the Big Ten Standings. 

A week and a half ago, graduate transfer defenseman Michael Underwood scored his first goal of the season with under five minutes to play in the third period at Little Caesars Arena. It earned Michigan State one point for the regulation tie, before ultimately surrendering a heartbreaking Michigan game-winner with less than a second to play in overtime. 

That one point earned by the Spartans set up what could’ve been a home-ice clinching weekend, and it appeared to be heading in that direction. Michigan State smacked Wisconsin Friday night and Minnesota blew the doors off Penn State, meaning MSU could clinch home-ice for the Big Ten Tournament Saturday night with a regulation win over Wisconsin and a Minnesota regulation win over Penn State.

Penn State did its part in keeping its home-ice hopes alive, forcing overtime versus Minnesota for a crucial point. It meant MSU could no longer clinch that night, though a win over the Badgers would position the Spartans very well for either the fourth or even the third seed. Instead, Michigan State laid a dud, falling 6-2 and effectively earning just three points on the weekend. 

Now, everything is out of Michigan State’s control. The Spartans are on a bye for the final week of the regular season, leaving the fate of their Big Ten seeding in the hands of Notre Dame and Penn State. Based on what happens this upcoming weekend, MSU can finish anywhere between fourth place and sixth place in the conference.

Team
GP Points W L T OW OL SW
Minnesota 22 51 17 4 1 2 1 0
Michigan 22 36 12 9 1 3 2 0
Ohio State 22 36 11 9 2 0 0 1
Michigan State 24 34 10 12 2 1 1 2
Notre Dame 22 31 9 10 3 1 0 2
Penn State  22 31 9 12 1 0 3 0
Wisconsin 22 15 5 17 0 0 0 0

Securing home ice and the fourth seed is obviously the best-case scenario for MSU. The Spartans are 11-5-1 at home, with Minnesota and Michigan being the only two Big Ten teams to have won a game at Munn Ice Arena. Meanwhile, MSU has won just five road games, with just two of them being conference wins (Penn State and Wisconsin). 

The good news for Michigan State though, is that it has tiebreakers over both Penn State and Notre Dame due to MSU having a better regular season winning percentage against those two teams. So, both Notre Dame and Penn State need four points this weekend to jump the Spartans, but in the case of a three-way tie, it goes to a different tiebreaker based upon regular-season winning percentage in all Big Ten games. 

No. 10 Penn State hosts Wisconsin, a team it swept in Madison in October and hasn’t won a Big Ten road game all year. However, the Nittany Lions are just 2-7-1 since the turn of the calendar, with the two wins coming at home versus Notre Dame and on the road at Ohio State. 

No. 20 Notre Dame, meanwhile, faces a tougher task having to travel to No. 4 Michigan – a team that should be inspired after a disappointing weekend versus Ohio State that left the two teams in a two-way tie for second place in the Big Ten. The road hasn’t been too kind for the Fighting Irish either, going just 4-10-1 on the season. However, Notre Dame swept Michigan in last year’s series in Ann Arbor, and the availability of Michigan’s star sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes is uncertain after he missed Saturday’s game versus Ohio State. 

According to playoffstatus.com, Michigan State has a 71% chance of landing as the fifth seed – likely against Penn State – who holds the highest chance to earn the fourth seed at 31%. No. 8 Ohio State is also in the mix, pending a daunting road series at No. 1 Minnesota. Should MSU accrue its 22% chance of earning the fourth seed, it needs both Wisconsin and Michigan to take at least three points on the weekend. 

NCAA Tournament Hopes

Perhaps the biggest blow of Saturday night’s loss at Wisconsin is to Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament aspirations. The Spartans slid down to No. 18 in the Pairwise rankings, leaving them on the outside looking in. 

The biggest kicker though is the tournament’s requirement for all eligible teams to field a record above .500. The Spartans’ loss to Wisconsin puts them at 16-16-2, meaning they must advance past the best-of-three first round of the Big Ten Tournament to even be in consideration for an at-large bid for the 16-team field. MSU is yet to win a Big Ten Tournament series – let alone a single game – in program history since the tournament’s inception in the 2013-14 season. That’s what makes home ice so advantageous because it doesn’t require Michigan State to pick up two road wins to save the season. 

But even if MSU makes it to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, it likely would need help from other teams around the NCAA Tournament bubble. That means rooting against teams currently ahead of them in the Pairwise such as Omaha, Northeastern, Cornell and Alaska, as well as teams just behind them like Merrimack, Connecticut and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). 

Of course, Michigan State could go on a tear and win the Big Ten Tournament, nullifying all the complicated qualifying scenarios. But as it stands now, the Spartans have just a 25% chance of participating in the NCAA Tournament, per playoffstatus.com. That’s a tough pill to swallow for what has been one of the more magical seasons in East Lansing in years. 

MSU Head Coach Adam Nightingale has preached all season long about controlling what the team can control and focusing on themselves. And now this weekend, all the Spartans can do is sit back and watch.

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