March 19, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Tradition has been restored. Michigan State is back in the NCAA Hockey Tournament.
The Spartans on Sunday morning ended a frustrating three-year run of not making the national tourney when the NCAA announced the 16-team field and MSU was included as the last at-large team.
No MSU player has ever played in the NCAA Tournament. The nine seniors had each of their last three seasons end after first-round losses in the CCHA playoffs.
"We thought we might have been done against Miami, but we have a second wind and it's great for the seniors,'' Spartan senior right wing and assistant captain Trevor Nill said Sunday at a gathering at Reno's East to watch the NCAA Hockey Selection Show.
"We have such a huge senior class and we wanted to end on a positive note.''
Two weekends ago, the Spartans played one of their worst series of the season in losing a CCHA first-round series at Miami (Ohio), 6-0, 4-1. Now they get a chance to make amends in NCAAs.
MSU (19-15-4) was the No. 4 seed in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., and will play No. 1 seed Union College (24-7-7) of the Eastern College Athletic Conference at 3 p.m. on Friday (ESPNU) at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard. MSU has never played the Dutchmen.
If the Spartans pull off the upset, they'll play the winner of Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal between Miami (24-14-2) and UMass-Lowell (23-12-1) of Hockey East. The East Regional title game is at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday (ESPNU). The Spartans' tourney hopes were still in doubt late Saturday night as the championship games of the five major conferences - CCHA) WCHA, Hockey East, ECAC and Atlantic Hockey - were finishing up.
MSU needed Western Michigan to lose, but with the Broncos leading Michigan late in the third period, the Spartans' tourney hopes came down to the Union vs. Harvard ECAC title game. They needed Union to win or they'd be knocked out of contention.
At one point in the third period, Harvard led 1-0 and Spartan players, coaches and fans, following on TV or the Internet or via texts, were getting nervous. But Union rebounded, scoring two goals and adding a late empty-netter to win the ECAC title 3-1 and open the door for MSU to join the NCAA fun.
"I watched everything and even listened to the Union game on the radio on the Internet,'' said junior defenseman and captain Torey Krug. "It got a little nerve wracking but it all worked out for us, and we're excited about the opportunity.
"I'm excited for this group of guys and the opportunity we have. It feels like we have a second life.''
On Saturday, the Spartans were cheering for Union and grateful for helping out. Now, they'll be trying to spoil its season so MSU can advance to the regional final against Miami or UMass-Lowell.
"It's been a trying week, not really sure of our fate and not having control over it,'' junior forward Anthony Hayes said. "Finally getting the word that we were in and now we're working toward something is a relief.''
Hayes said he didn't watch any games or follow online.
"I wasn't one of the guys trying to figure out all the scenarios,'' he said. "I waited for text to find out where we were at. Torey Krug sent out the text.''
Most of the Spartans do not know much about Union College, other than the Dutchmen boast some impressive statistics.
Union, which finished first in the ECAC for the second straight season and captured is first ECAC playoff title on Saturday, has the best defensive record in the nation. The Dutchmen average 1.82 goals against, and sophomore goalie Troy Grosenick, a first-team All-ECAC selection and a Hobey Baker Award finalist, has a 1.65 goals-against average, third-best nationally.
On offense, Union averages 3.55 goals a game, No. 3 in the nation, and is clicking on 24 percent of its power-play opportunities, ranking No. 4.
"They're a very good team and really good defensively,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "They'll be a heavy favorite, but if we play to our capability, I'm confident we'll be a competitive team.
"I'm happy and excited for the players most of all. They've worked hard all season. We didn't want to end our season with the sweep at Miami, so this gives us a second life.''
The Spartans practiced all last week and will probably practice three more times before heading to the regional on Wednesday and once in Bridgeport on Thursday.
"We have to get home and work on schoolwork because we'll probably leave early to head to Connecticut,'' Nill said. "That's the student-athlete part of things. We'll have to make sure we're eating right and getting some rest because things will come quick.
"One of the biggest things we have to (focus on) is our attention to detail. It's one game and you're done. The Miami situation might turn out to benefit us because it's a lesson we can learn and now we can move on and get this first win.''
Krug said this week in practice is all about working to be mentally prepared to come out strong and execute on Friday in the first game of 2012 NCAA Tournament.
"I know we're physically ready for everything the coach asks of us. We had a great week of practice last week and I think we'll have another one this week, and we'll be ready come Friday.''
"I had three TVs going and was watching the three games going on (CCHA, WCHA, Hockey East) and I didn't put on the Union-Harvard game on the computer and was just following the score,'' Anastos said. "But it was 0-0 in the third period and I broke down and said `I've got to watch this game.'
"So we called it up and I've got that game going on my lap and I'm watching the other three on TV. Harvard scores first but Union came right back and tied it and I felt pretty good. Then, when Union got the second goal, I had a lot of energy going over that.
"I really felt a lot of relief when Union got the open-net goal. And that gave me the feeling that we had a good chance (to get into the tournament). There was a lot of anxiety on Saturday. Everyone says you're in and then we come in and practice this morning, but you don't really get word from anyone that tells you you're in. You have to wait for the selection show.''
The Spartans waited . . . and loved what they heard.
Like the Spartans, Union has a new coach - Rick Bennett, a former standout at Providence College who was a Dutchmen assistant for six seasons under former coach Nate Leaman. Leaman left Union after eight seasons to take the head coaching job at Providence.
Union's top scorer is senior Kelly Zajac, who has eight goals and 33 assists for 41 points. Zajac is the brother of former North Dakota standout Travis Zajac, now in his sixth season with the NHL's New Jersey Devils. Jeremy Welsh, a junior, tops the Dutchmen in goals with 25 and in second in points with 40. Union played two CCHA teams this season. It tied Western Michigan twice, 2-2, 3-3, on Oct. 14-15 at home, and upset Michigan, 6-3, at Yost Arena on Nov. 27.
The WCHA had four teams qualify - champion North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth-- as did Hockey East - champion Boston College, Maine, Boston University and UMass-Lowell. The ECAC had two teams - champion Union and Cornell -- while the automatic qualifier from Atlantic Hockey was Air Force, which beat RIT in the title game and earned the No. 16 seed overall.
Boston College earned the No. 1 overall seed and was matched against the lowest No. 4 seed in Air Force in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., which begins on Saturday. In the other semifinal, Minnesota-Duluth, the No. 2 seed in the regional, plays No. 3 Maine.
Michigan was the No. 2 overall seed and earned the No. 1 spot in the Midwest Regional in Green Bay. The Wolverines play No. 4 seeded Cornell, while the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup features Ferris State against Denver. The regional starts on Friday.
Just below Union at the No. 4 overall seed was North Dakota, which earned the No. 1 seed in the West Regional in St. Paul, Minn. The Sioux face CCHA champion Western Michigan, 14th in the PWR and the No. 4 seed in the regional. In the other semifinal, No. 2 Minnesota plays No. 3 Boston University. This is the Gophers' first NCAA trip since 2008.
Minnesota-Duluth is the NCAA defending champ. Boston College is seeking its third national title in the last five years. The Eagles won in 2008 and 2010. Boston University reigned in 2009 and the last CCHA team to emerge as the national champion was MSU in 2007.
This is MSU's fifth appearance in the NCAA tourney in the last 10 season. The Spartans made it in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
"Those were meaningful, important games to get where we are in the NCAAs and for our psyche as we were developing as a team,'' coach Tom Anastos said.
The final PairWise Rankings had WMU at No. 14 and MSU, NMU and Merrimack tied for No. 15. But the Spartans got the higher seed and thus made the NCAA tournament because of a better RPI (ratings percentage index), a strength-of-schedule rating. MSU had an RPI of .5354, NMU was at .5307 and Merrimack at .5300.
"You look back at the ebb and flow and see the things that went right and the things you might want to go a little different, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter because we're in, we're playing on Friday afternoon and it's a whole new season.''