By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
DETROIT – For Michigan State, the scenario for this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament is pretty simple:
Win Thursday against Ohio State.
Win Friday against Wisconsin.
Win Saturday against either Minnesota, Penn State or Michigan.
If the Spartans can put together a three-game win streak, they’ll practice on Monday at Munn Arena.
If not, there are no more practices, no more games. The season is over.
“We’re playing with a great sense of urgency and consistency will be big for us,’’ MSU sophomore forward Mason Appleton said. “We have to have a your-life-is-on-the-line mentality. After Thursday, our season could be over so we’re going in there with great urgency and we expect to play a good game.’’
No. 6 seed Michigan State and No. 3 Ohio State open the Big Ten Tournament with the first quarterfinal at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Joe Louis Arena. No. 5 Michigan plays No. 4 Penn State at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The Spartans-Buckeyes winner advances to face No. 2 Wisconsin at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, followed No. 1 Minnesota vs. the winner of the Michigan-Penn State game at 8 p.m.
The championship game is at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
“The do-or-die mentality creates a great atmosphere. You have teams playing with great desperation so that’ll definitely ramp things up a notch,’’ said Appleton, the Spartans’ top scorer with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 34 games.
“Almost all the teams are playing to keep their seasons alive so there should be some great games.’’
Of course, the game Appleton is most interested in is his team’s fifth game against Ohio State in the last month.
The Buckeyes and Spartans played just two weeks ago in Columbus, with MSU winning the series opener, 5-4, and OSU earning a split with a 5-3 victory in the second game. Ohio State swept Michigan State, 3-2 and 4-3, at Munn Arena on Feb. 17-18.
The Spartans believe they’ve improved several aspects of their game, have their game at a good level and are eager for the “second season” – the postseason.
“It was a very disappointing season results-wise, and yet I know every guy in the dressing room has seen us play really well in all areas of our game, but one of the biggest challenges has been our consistency,’’ MSU coach Tom Anastos said.
“We’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about that over the past several weeks. We’ve got to build that to a crescendo Thursday where we’re hitting in all areas to our full potential. That’s all you can ask.’’
The Spartans are 1-2-1 in their last four games, including a 4-0 loss and 1-1 tie and shootout win at Minnesota last weekend. MSU was good in containing Ohio State’s and Minnesota’s top scorers in those series, but penalty killing was strong vs. the Gophers but not against the Buckeyes.
“We have to organize ourselves in all areas of our game, be prepared for close games, which we’ve played a number of against this team,’’ Anastos said. “And that’s what tournament play typically is. You have to be ready for those (crucial) moments when they arise, but you don’t know when they’re coming.’’
The MSU coach said his team did some things very well in the last series against Ohio State and one thing – penalty killing – not so good.
“In many areas of our game, we played with consistency. In end, we still gave up more goals than we care to give up,’’ he said. “We gave up five power-play goals on the weekend.
“That’s our challenge. We’re going to have to step up to that challenge in one of two ways – either defend better or not get any penalties. Probably, the combination of the two have to take place.’’
The Buckeyes’ power play is No. 1 in the nation. They’re converting on an amazing 31.5 percent of their opportunities. In the four games against the Spartans, OSU’s power play went 0-for-3, 2-for-4, 2-for-3, and 3-for-4. In the second game, the Buckeyes’ first two goals came on the power play. In the last game, the winning goal came on a power play in the third period.
“Staying out of the penalty box is huge this time of year,’’ Appleton said. “I thought we did a good job on the penalty kill last weekend at Minnesota. We need to keep that momentum going and not take penalties we don’t need to take and play hard defense when they do happen.’’
With high-end offensive players like Mason Jobst, Nick Schilkey, David Gust, Dakota Joshua, Tanner Laczynski and Matthew Weiss, the Buckeyes are the third-highest scoring team in college hockey, averaging 4.00 goals per game.
“It’s going to be important for us to defend hard, come back to the net and pick up guys,” Appleton said. “We have to take away their top guys, and we’ve done a fairly good job of that in the four games with them.
“Ohio State is more high-risk, high-reward that any team in the Big Ten. It’s nothing against that because it’s worked out well for them. They love flying guys out of the zone and making those 50 foot passes to get behind our defense. That’s going to create opportunities for them, but if we play strong defense, we should be able to manage that.
“They’re a team that will cheat in their defensive zone here and there for offensive opportunities, so we have to take advantage of that with defense, transition the puck and create our own chances.’’
In the end, it’s all about Michigan State playing a complete game, executing well in both ends of the rink and making big plays at key times.
“We have to play three full periods and not have a five-minute lull because those games usually don’t end up the way you want them,’’ Appleton said.
Seniors Joe Cox and Thomas Ebbing are the Spartans’ top two penalty killers, and Cox believes his team can be much better against the OSU power play than it has shown in the last three games with the Buckeyes.
“In our last game against them, I thought we did good job except for our penalty kill. That’s something we have to come together on and I think it’s doable because we did a good job on the penalty kill at Minnesota and they have a really good power play, too,’’ he said.
“It’s going to be a pretty hostile environment (on the ice). It’s a do-or-die situation and it should be intense because we’ve played four times in a relatively short time. That kind of hatred bubbles over.’’
Cox said his team is ready for the Big Ten challenge, based on the way MSU has played the last three weeks.
“The guys have kind of stepped up and it’s kind of a good stepping stone coming into the Big Tens because we’re going to have be performing at a peak for three games,’’ he said. “We did have some poor moments in those games, but I thought we showed a tremendous amount of growth that we’re going to have to bottle it and bring it to the tournament this weekend.’’
While Michigan State and Michigan have to win the Big Ten title to make the NCAA Tournament via the conference’s automatic berth, three teams are in jeopardy of not making the NCAAs unless they win a game or two.
Minnesota is a lock to make the tournament, based on a No. 5 spot in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the formula used by the NCAA Hockey Committee to select the 10 at-large teams to the 16-team tournament field.
But Penn State (No. 13 in PWR), Ohio State (14) and Wisconsin (No. 18) are on the bubble and will be playing desperate, just like the Spartans and Wolverines.
“There’s lots of desperation going on and it’s more about which teams play with that sense of urgency,’’ Anastos said. “Minnesota is in for sure and Penn State is well-positioned but you never know how others things will play out (in other conference tournaments).
“Wisconsin has plenty to play for to keep their season alive, as well as Michigan. It’ll make for a great tournament.
“We know our season is about one game at a time, so we should have tons of urgency.’’
HERE WE GO AGAIN: The Spartans and Buckeyes are matched up in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals for the third time in the last four seasons.
The two teams met in the first Big Ten tourney in 2014 in St. Paul, Minn., with the Buckeyes winning 2-1 in overtime on a goal by defenseman Drew Brevig, who is now a senior.
Last season, MSU and OSU faced off again in St. Paul and once again, the Buckeyes found a way to end the Spartans season, winning 4-3 in overtime on a goal by Mason Jobst, now a sophomore and Ohio State’s leading scorer.
The three Big Ten Tournament titles have been won by Wisconsin (2014), Minnesota (2015) and Michigan (2016).
SCOUTING THE BUCKEYES: Ohio State has won three in a row and is coming off a crucial sweep at Wisconsin, 5-1, 3-1, and it lifted the Buckeyes over Penn State and into a third-place finish in the Big Ten.
Over the last four games, including the 5-4 loss and 5-3 win over MSU, Ohio State has scored 17 goals.
Mason Jobst, a first-time All-Big Ten forward, leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 33 assists for 51 points. Seniors Nick Schilkey (26-13-39) and David Gust (16-23-39) are tied for second. Schilkey has 15 power-power play goals and Jobst and Gust have nine apiece.
Other goal-scoring threats include Dakota Joshua (11), Kevin Miller (11), John Wiitala (10), Tanner Laczynski (9) and Matthew Weiss (9).
Since senior goalie Matt Tomkins replaced senior Christian Fry after the first period of MSU’s 5-4 win two weeks ago, in which the Spartans scored four goals in the first 20 minutes, Tomkins has started the last three games. Tomkins is 11-3-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and a .909 saves percentage. Fry is 9-7-3 with a 3.07 GAA and a .910 saves percentage.
There’s a good chance Tomkins will be in goal against the Spartans on Thursday.
Ohio State does have its flaws and most have to do with defense. The Buckeyes can be erratic on defense and their penalty killing has struggled most of the season. It’s been only 73.7 percent effective in skating off opponents’ power plays. That ranks No. 57th in the nation, one spot higher that Michigan State (73.3 percent).
MINNEY SHARP: Goalie Ed Minney was back in a starter’s role last Saturday at Minnesota and he was sharp, steady and made big saves in one of his best games of the season. He made 32 saves.
John Lethemon, a freshman, had started the last three games and four of the last five. But after Lethemon lost 4-0 to the Gophers in the series opener, Coach Tom Anastos went back to Minney for the series finale.
The coach liked what he saw.
“He was tracking the puck well, he was fighting through screens, he was square to the puck, he managed rebounds well and he showed a lot of poise in that game,’’ Anastos said.
“In the end, when you wrap it all together, he stopped the shots he should stop and he made some big saves when we needed big saves. That’s what you need from a goalie. He gave us a chance to win the game.’’
Minney is 5-13-3, has a 3.47 goals-against average and an .888 saves percentage. Lethemon is 2-10-1 with a 3.66 GAA and an .870 saves percentage.
“I think Ed is a confident kid. He’s been working hard and he understands he’s competing for playing time, and I actually think it’s a benefit to him and for both of those guys,’’ Anastos said.
“That’s part of your challenge as a player. It’s gaining experience, working toward an opportunity and building confidence. When you’ve earned the opportunity, it’s all about finding a level of performance that you can sustain.’’
Anasatos said he would decide on Thursday’s goaltender after practice on Wednesday, after conferring with his coaching staff, including goalie coach Jason Muzzatti.
“I always get lots of input and then make a decision,’’ Anastos said. “We’ll look at recent play, body of work, the opponent and experience. All those things are taken into consideration.’’
MILESTONE FOR CARRIER: Michigan State’s long-time athletic trainer Dave Carrier will be working his 1,500th game in college hockey on Thursday when the Spartans meet Ohio State in the Big Ten quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena.
Carrier, in his 33rd season at MSU, is one of the most respected hockey trainers in the nation. He came to Michigan State in 1984 after five years at Ferris State.
In June 2015, Carrier was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame. Carrier served as athletic trainer for the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team in 1988 and also spent four weeks working with the ski jumpers and Nordic track athletes at the 1992 Winter Olympics.
JOE LOUIS ARENA MEMORIES: Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game will be the last college hockey game to be played at Joe Louis Arena, which is closing this year after a 38-plus year run.
Five games college games remain at JLA, starting Thursday with the Big Ten quarterfinals.
Coaches, players and fans will be reminiscing about special memories at the home of Detroit hockey since December, 1979.
Michigan State coach Tom Anastos has memories of The Joe as a fan, player, parent, assistant coach, head coach and administrator, starting when he was 16-years-old and living in Dearborn.
“My first experience that I can remember was when I was 16 and I went with my dad to the NHL All-Star Game in 1980, the first year Joe Louis opened,’’ he said. “They had 21,002 people at the game and the most memorable thing I remember from the game was when Gordie Howe was introduced. He was playing for the Hartford Whalers at the time.
“I saw Gordie play but I didn’t remember him in the prime of his career. But I remember how Detroit embraced him and what his name meant in the hockey market in Detroit. When he was introduced, I remember the building was shaking. He got such an ovation.’’
After that, Anastos played at The Joe as a player with Michigan State, coached there as an assistant coach and then coached his kids’ games in the historic building.
“I have memories of my first college game there. It was a loss in the Great Lakes Invitational (in 1981) and it was the only time I lost in the building as a player,’’ he said. “The next day we tied (Michigan) in the consolation game and we won every game after that.’’
As a player, Anastos’ record at Joe Louis Arena was 14-1-1, and he helped the Spartans win four CCHA championships and three GLI titles.
“The most memorable game I played there was in 1984. We played Michigan Tech in the GLI championship game. It set a record as the largest crowd to every watch a hockey game in North America,’’ Anastos said. “It was 21,576. It was unbelievable. You couldn’t see the aisle ways because people were sitting there.
“I’ll never forget that game. We won 7-0. Michigan State hockey was on the rise and generated a ton of interest.’’
After Anastos retired as a player, he got into coaching and coached some of his kids in games at JLA and watched a lot of Red Wings games.
“I got the opportunity to coach my kids there in Little Caesar’s championship games, and that was cool experiences for them to get banners, trophies,’’ he said.
“And just going to so many great Red Wings games, that was great.’’
Anastos coached as an assistant to Ron Mason for two seasons (1990-92) and was on the bench for several games a year at JLA in the GLI, CCHA Championships and in the annual game with Michigan.
As CCHA commissioner, Anastos negotiated contracts with Olympia and Wings owner Mike Ilitch to keep the CCHA Championship at JLA, and he was involved in running the tournaments until he took over at MSU in 2011. As Spartan head coach, there were more games at JLA.
Next season, the GLI and the Duel in the D game with Michigan will have a new home – the new, state-of-the-art Little Caesar’s Arena off Woodward Avenue, near Comerica Park and Ford Field.
“There were so many experiences that will be memorable. It’s definitely time to move on from Joe Louis, but I hope it’s not the last time there for me this weekend,’’ Anastos said. “I hope to be able to see another Red Wings game or another event there before it closes down.’’
Michigan State’s all-time record at Joe Louis Arena is 88-64-8. The Spartans are 4-1 vs. Ohio State at JLA.
SPARTANS POTPOURRI: Mason Appleton heads into the postseason as MSU’s leading scorer with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points. He leads in goals and is tied in assists with linemate Taro Hirose, who’s second in team scoring with six goals and 24 points … Hirose’s 24 points are the most by a Spartan freshman since Derek Grant had 30 (12-18) in 38 games in 2009-10. Hirose has points in 10 of his last 15 games. … Freshman Sam Saliba, who has scored eight of his nine goals in Big Ten play, has three goals and one assist for four points in his last four games. Hirose is MSU’s third-leading scorer with nine goals and eight assists for 17 points. … Freshman Patrick Khodorenko and senior Thomas Ebbing are tied for fourth in team scoring with 16 points apiece. Khodorenko has seven goals and nine assists while Ebbing has three goal and 13 assists. … Spartan defensemen have increased their offensive output in recent weeks, combining for 22 points over the last 12 games. Rhett Holland (3-5-8) and junior Carson Gatt (3-8-11) are having their best years offensively. Sophomore Zach Osburn is MSU’s top-scoring defenseman with four goals and eight assists for 12 points, one more than Gatt and freshman Jerad Rosburg (3-8-11).
BIG TEN AWARDS: Minnesota forward Tyler Sheehy was selected as Big Ten Player of the Year in voting by the league’s coaches and selected media.
Sheehy led the Big Ten in overall scoring with 20 goals and 32 assists for 52 points in 36 games. He shared the conference scoring title with Mason Jobst of Ohio State with 34 points. Sheehy had 14 goals and 20 assists and Jobst had 13 goals and 21 assists in 20 Big Ten games.
Wisconsin’s Trent Frederic was selected as Freshman of the Year and Tony Granato of the Badgers was voted Coach of the Year. Minnesota’s Eric Schierhorn was named Goalie of the Year.
Sheehy headed up the All-Big Ten First Team which includes forwards Jobst of Ohio State and Minnesota’s Justin Kloos, defensemen Jake Bischoff of Minnesota and Vince Pedrie of Penn State and goalie Schierhorn of the Gophers.
The second team: Goalie – Christian Fry, Wisconsin; Defense – Vince Healey, Ohio State, and Jake Linhart, Wisconsin; Forwards – Nick Schilkey, Ohio State; Luke Kunin, Wisconsin, and Trent Frederic, Wisconsin.
Michigan State defenseman Carson Gatt received a vote or votes on defense and thus earned honorable mention status.
The All-Freshman Team: Goalie – Peyton Jones, Penn State; Kris Myllani, Penn State; Ryan Lindgren, Minnesota; Forwards – Trent Frederic, Wisconsin; Denis Smirnov, Penn State, and Rem Pitlick, Minnesota.
Bischoff was selected as Defensive Player of the Year.
The Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honorees included Joe Cox, Michigan State; Vinni Lettieri, Minnesota; Aidan Cavallini, Wisconsin; David Goodwin, Penn State; Logan Davis, Ohio State, and Sam Piazza, Michigan.