March 15, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Here's what's on the agenda for the Michigan State hockey team this weekend:
Practice, watch or follow the 19 games being played in the five Division I conferences around the nation and hope the outcomes lead to the Spartans squeezing into the NCAA Tournament.
There's a good chance the Spartans (19-15-4) will be playing in an NCAA Regional next weekend. It could be St. Paul, Minn., Green Bay, Worcester, Mass., or Bridgeport, Conn. It doesn't matter. MSU will go anywhere and play anybody, just as long as the season continues.
"We are seriously in the mix and we're excited about that,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Bowling Green has been on a nice (six-game) run and now has a chance to win the (CCHA) championship and earn its way into the NCAA Tournament.
"In our case, it's been a full body of work that has positioned us to be in the mix for the tournament. We're proud of that. We had the second-toughest schedule in the nation, the toughest Michigan State has had in a decade.
"We've been tested all season and for the most part have done pretty well. Las week in particular, we didn't. Now we're hoping to have the opportunity to play and compete in the national tournament.''
When the Spartans were dominated by Miami, 6-0 and 4-1, last weekend in a CCHA second-round series, it appeared that MSU would be out of the mix for one of the 11 at-large berths in the 16-team NCAA Championship field.
But after several playoff games last Sunday, the Spartans' position in the PairWise Rankings suddenly looked pretty good. The PWR is a system which attempts to mimic the method used by the NCAA Selection Committee to select and seed teams in the tournament.
The Spartans are tied with Western Michigan for No. 14 in the PWR with 17 winning comparisons against the other 31 teams with a strength of schedule (ratings percentage index) at .5000 or higher.
Northern Michigan, also still in contention for the NCAAs but considered a longshot, is No. 16 with 16 winning comparisons. Merrimack, which has an outside chance, is No. 17 (15).
Since the playoff champion of Atlantic Hockey (either Air Force, Mercyhurst, RIT or Niagara) will have a low PWR ranking, that team is expected to be seeded No. 16. So, the goal for teams on the bubble is to finish at least 15th in order to receive an at-large berth.
Anastos, the players and staff and Spartan fans will be rooting for no major upsets among the five conferences holding championship rounds this weekend - the CCHA, Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Hockey East, Eastern College Athletic Conference and Atlantic Hockey.
If there's just one upset -- like Bowling Green of the CCHA, St. Cloud State and Michigan Tech of the WCHA, Providence of Hockey East and Colgate and Harvard of the ECAC winning a playoff title - that could knock the Spartans out of the top 16 and out of the tournament.
If there are two surprise teams, the Spartans' season is most likely done.
However, there are some scenarios in which a Michigan Tech or a Bowling Green or a Harvard wins its playoff title and MSU still gets in because it would be tied for No. 14 with Western Michigan or Northern Michigan, and ahead of the surprise winner and the Atlantic Hockey champion.
The Spartans would get the higher seed in a tie because they have a better RPI (strength of schedule).
MSU players have been trying various scenarios on two websites - uscho.com and collegehockeynews.com - and they like what they see.
"You feel good, but it's college hockey and anything can happen,'' MSU junior defenseman and captain Torey Krug said. "It's the same with all college sports - any team can beat another on a given night.
"The chances are there and I feel we have a good shot at it, but unfortunately it's out of our hands.''
The Spartans will know their fate late Saturday night, when the final game of the night is complete. Then the final PairWise will be revealed and MSU will know whether it will be practicing next week.
The NCAA Selection Show is at noon on Sunday (ESPNU).
"We're going at this like we're going to be playing. We had a normal meeting on Monday like we're going to play,'' Anastos said. "And we're practicing all week. We want to be ready for the opportunity that if we do get in, we take advantage of it. It's important that we go in and give an effort we feel good about.
"The last two weekends, our total body of work wasn't good enough. That was our message was on Monday and that will be the focus in practice all week and next week as we gear up to play.''
The Falcons will try keep their NCAA hopes alive when they face No. 2 seed Michigan at 8 p.m. on Friday at Joe Louis Arena. No. 3 Western Michigan meets No. 4 Miami in the CCHA tourney opener at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
The best scenario for MSU would be to have Miami and Michigan meet for the title on Saturday, and not WMU and BGSU. Two Broncos losses - the second in the third-place game - would also be best for the Spartans' fate.
"I know the teams that if they get upset wins could potentially push us out. We'll be paying close attention to those games,'' said Coach Tom Anastos said, who will be at the CCHA Championship.
"I won't be rooting for or against anyone. I'll just be waiting for all the results.''
Asked if he'd be rooting for Michigan in a potential title game with Western Michigan, captain Torey Krug replied:
"I don't want to say . . . but we all know what we're looking for. Whatever gives us an opportunity to take steps forward for the program. It's out of our hands, so we have to hope for the best.''
In MSU's last series of the regular season, the Spartans didn't compete at a high level in a 2-0 loss at Notre Dame.
"We need to build a championship mentality here,'' Anastos said. "Physically, we're in shape. But in our last two series -- when you consider how important those four games were, in two of those games we were not very good. That's disheartening.
"You have to figure out the root of the problem . Why weren't we ready? Why didn't we perform? It's not so much a question about the results of the game but the process of getting those results. We have to learn from it and build a mentality that's necessary to compete for a championship every year.''
After upsetting Colordo College, 3-2, in the NCAA West Regional semifinal in Colorado Springs, the Spartans were tied 1-1 with Notre Dame in the title game, but ended up losing 3-1.
Making the NCAAs in Anastos' first season and with a team which had so many questions marks at the start of the year, would be a major boost for the program.
"It would be a positive step forward because we haven't been in the national tournament in several years,'' Anastos said. "That was one of our goals. But getting there doesn't mean that we're satisfied.''