One point. Michigan State hockey was one point short of hosting its first Big Ten tournament game since the conference formed in the 2013-14 season.
Since they were on a bye last week, all the Spartans could do was sit back and watch from afar as the other six teams in the conference decided their playoff destiny. At the end of the weekend, the Spartans were locked in as the fifth seed, meaning they would go another year without hosting their quarterfinals round.
Instead, No. 20 MSU (16-16-2, 10-12-2 Big Ten) travels to South Bend to face No. 19 Notre Dame (15-14-5, 10-10-4 Big Ten) for the third time this season in a best-of-three quarterfinals series.
In order to earn above a .500 record and qualify for the 16-team NCAA tournament, the Spartans need to pick up two wins this weekend. Even then, MSU has just a 16% chance to make the tournament, sitting at No. 19 in the PairWise.
“Obviously we’d love an opportunity to play in the tournament,” Michigan State head hockey coach Adam Nightingale said. “I am proud our guys got themselves a spot in the conversation, and we would love to be in right now and know you’re in, but all we can focus on now is playing great hockey down the stretch.”
Just as Michigan State has never hosted a Big Ten tournament game, it has also never won one.
In fact, the Spartans have placed higher than No. 5 just once since the conference formed, when they earned a No. 2 seed in 2015 before losing to Michigan in the semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.
“I'm not really too worried about the past,” senior forward Jagger Joshua said. “We've obviously seen (Notre Dame) a couple times now and we've had some success against them and their system, so that obviously gives us confidence … With the guys we have in the room … and our coaching staff and our belief is really what gives us confidence to go out there and hopefully come back with our first playoff win.”
Four days after an on-campus mass shooting took the lives of three MSU students, the Spartans decided they would travel to Wisconsin as scheduled for their last series of the regular season.
“You never want that to be part of anyone's life or their experience especially when we talk about college in such a special time, but I do really believe in our campus or university and it's a special place and I know we'll get through it,” Nightingale said.
In the face of tragedy, the first game of the series brought an impressive 6-2 victory for Michigan State. However, the results of night two were not what the Spartans wanted, falling to the Badgers by the same score.
Scouting the Fighting Irish
The Spartans are 2-1-1 against the Fighting Irish during the regular season, most recently earning a series sweep last month in East Lansing.
One of the most notable storylines of the weekend will be the battle of the goaltenders. In the net for the Spartans will be graduate student Dylan St. Cyr, who spent his first four college seasons with the Fighting Irish. At the opposite side of the ice will be St. Cyr’s old teammate and friend, Notre Dame senior goaltender Ryan Bischel.
Bischel has been playing exceptionally well since Notre Dame was swept by MSU on Feb. 3 and 4 at Munn Ice Arena. His .932 save percentage, (second best in the nation), helped the Irish clinch a 3-3 tie with a shootout win and 2-1 overtime victory against Michigan last weekend.
Almost two years ago, when St. Cyr was still with the Irish, he ended MSU’s season in South Bend with two shutouts in-a-row, including 56 saves.
St. Cyr has one last opportunity to flip the script this weekend, in what could be his last series of college hockey.
“(Notre Dame) won two Big Ten championships while I was there,” St. Cyr said. “Going back to that building, same kind of crowd – I'm assuming it'll be really good; sold out. So, that atmosphere will be really exciting for us.”
Junior forward Ryder Rolston, one of the Irish’s top point-earners, missed Notre Dame’s last three series of the season, including the one against MSU, after suffering a season-ending collarbone injury.
Graduate student forward Chayse Primeau and senior forward Trevor Janicke lead the Irish in points with 22 and 21 points respectively. Primeau notched one goal against the Spartans when they met in February.
The best-of-three series starts Friday at 7 p.m. at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. Saturday’s game is set for 4:30 p.m. If necessary, a tie-breaker match will take place Sunday at 6 p.m. All games will be televised on FS2.