When Michigan State played its exhibition game against the USNTDP on Oct. 1, the recorded attendance at Munn Ice Arena was 4,401, almost two thousand under the max of 6,555.
For the first official home game versus Bowling Green on Oct. 7 and the first Big Ten series Nov. 4-5, the Spartans sold over 5,000 tickets all three nights.
That was the trend all year. As MSU’s confidence grew throughout the season under its new head coach, so did the crowds.
Before they knew it, the last seven home games were sold out with standing room only. And with the recent renovations, Munn quickly became the place to be on the weekends, which hasn’t been the case for most of the last decade.
The Spartans missed the opportunity to play in East Lansing during the quarterfinals by one point, but losing home ice advantage didn’t hurt them, as they picked up a pair of 4-2 victories over No. 20 Notre Dame on Saturday and Sunday to advance to the semifinals.
Michigan State has officially reached 18 wins overall, the most it’s had in twelve seasons when it got 19 in 2011-12.
As the weekend went on, the amount of cheers for the Spartans only increased.
The “Go Green, Go White” chants ringing through Compton Family Ice Arena during the tie-breaker matchup were enough to make you forget – for just a second – that you were in South Bend and not East Lansing.
Spartan hockey fans showed up and made their presence known on Sunday, and their support did not go unnoticed by the coaches and players.
“It means a lot,” senior forward Nico Müller said Sunday. “I think the whole one side was full of MSU fans, and it’s just great that they traveled here.”
MSU head hockey coach Adam Nightingale echoed Müller’s remarks, acknowledging the program’s loyal devotees.
“A lot of them have been following the team for years, you know, and obviously, there's been some stretches here where I think it maybe hasn't hit the level we all want it to be,” Nightingale said. “So, for their continued support means a lot.”
This weekend, Michigan State hockey earned its first ever Big Ten Tournament game and series wins. At the same time, notching its first playoff win since defeating Alaska in the first round of the CCHA Tournament in early 2013.
“The guys did a heck of a job,” Nightingale said. “To go down 1-0 and come back and hang on is huge for the program.”
One of the biggest contributing factors was graduate student goaltender Dylan St. Cyr who got to play in the arena where he got his collegiate start one final time. St. Cyr had an impeccable performance, making some of his best saves as a Spartan. He stopped 88 shots in total, while allowing five goals.
“I never would have thought that my best games here would have been in green and white,” St. Cyr, who spent four years at Notre Dame, said. “Obviously really excited to get that win with Michigan State, and it was cool to see everybody coming back this weekend, but (it) really felt good to get the win.”
The Spartans finally found their groove Saturday, beating Bischel in the net four times. They matched that energy on Sunday, tallying another four.
Overall, MSU produced eight goals from six different players during games two and three. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish had five across the series. Nine skaters recorded assists with three picking up multiple.
Müller lead the team with two goals and three assists. He and the rest of the second line, made up of senior forward Erik Middendorf and junior forward Jeremy Davidson, were buzzing all series. The trio combined for four goals and six assists.
“They worked so hard, today,” Müller said of his linemates. “I thought we were rolling yesterday pretty well, as well. And today, in the first we had a good period and also scored one goal, so … I'm really proud of them. They worked really hard and we clicked really good.”
It was an important series win for the program – one MSU needed. The fans needed it too.
But the season isn’t over, yet.
Next up? Facing No. 1 seed Minnesota on the road in the semifinal round.
It will be a tall task, as MSU has yet to defeat the Golden Gophers this season. The Spartans will have one final chance to take down arguably the best team in the Big Ten on Saturday at 9 p.m. EST at Mariucci Arena. An upset victory would send them to the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the first time.
“They're a great team and we always have to respect our opponents, but we kind of say if we played them 10 times they're gonna have an edge nine times,” St. Cyr said. “But it's a one game series and we're gonna go over there with the confidence that we can win this game.”
If Michigan State’s season ends next weekend, it won’t all be for nothing. Far from it, in fact. This group of Spartans and coaching staff have already made massive strides in their first year together. Right now, the future of the program seems bright.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this series and season is that after many recent gloomy, dark days in the program, the Spartans have made hockey in East Lansing exciting again.
“I think everyone feels – our fan base and our community – feels that we're on the rise, and we can validate that a little bit,” Nightingale said. “But I also think we got a group of guys that aren't done either. I think they want to keep playing hockey and we're at a point in the year now where you either win or you go home.”