Conference Schedule Preview: Hockey

The 2014-2015 Big Ten hockey schedule has been released, as Tom Anastos and the Spartans will look to improve last season’s conference record of 5-9-6-4. And despite finishing second to last, Michigan State lost four regulation games by one goal and had wins over some of the best teams in the country.

For Anastos, there is a lot of motivation for this team to improve starting with their first conference match-up in Columbus, Ohio with Ohio State. The Spartans went 0-2-2-1 against the Buckeyes last season including a heartbreaking overtime loss in the inaugural Big Ten Tournament. Four of the five games between these two were decided by one goal. And to top it all off, the two teams finished the season separated by just two points.

It is very intriguing that Michigan State should open up their conference play with such a big matchup. Both series against Ohio State are essential to the Spartans if they want to climb the ladder in the Big Ten standings.

Last season, if MSU had won most of their games against the Buckeyes, not only would they have moved up to fourth place, but they could have potentially stolen third place away from Michigan. Expect to see much of the same this season with Minnesota and Wisconsin seemingly on their way to the top two seeds again.

After a late November trip to New Jersey to play Princeton, State will play its Big Ten home opener on Dec. 5 against Minnesota, who finished the regular season ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Spartans played Minnesota very tightly last season dropping two, one-goal decisions while winning two games in shootouts, including one on the road in Minneapolis.

Even though this is an early series in conference play, it can give Michigan State a tremendous confidence boost heading forward, which is something this relatively young team could use, especially if they are able to reverse their fortunes against Ohio State.

A few weeks later, Sparty will make the trip to Hockey Valley to play Penn State, a series that was a lot closer than people expected last season. Michigan State won three of the four games in regulation and won the other in a shootout.

The games against the Nittany Lions are must-wins – plain and simple. Penn State went 3-16-1 in conference play last season and Michigan State cannot afford to leave any points on the table when these two meet up, and MSU hopes to move up in the standings.

The next three matchups will be monumental with a meeting against the Wolverines sandwiched between home games against Ohio State and Penn State. Those six games will be gut check time for this team.

If they can win the weekend series on Jan. 30 against Michigan and take at least four of those six games in that stretch overall, Anastos and his team will be in great shape heading into the toughest three-week stretch of their season.

After playing Penn State at Munn, the team will go on a two-week road trip with stops in Wisconsin and Minnesota. After that, they will come home to play their second series against Wisconsin in three weeks.

This is where the Ohio State and Penn State series are going to be so important. A sweep of the Nittany Lions and at least two or three wins against Ohio State might offer the Spartans some protection if they can’t earn a win, or squeeze a few points, out of that road trip. Against these two teams on the road last season, State went 0-3-1-1 while scoring only four goals in regulation and getting shutout twice. The only time MSU came on the winning side of a matchup with the Badgers was after a thrilling overtime win at Munn.

After that difficult stretch, the Spartans will close out their conference schedule on Friday the 13th, of March that is, at home against Michigan. If all goes well for the Spartans leading up to this matchup, third place in the conference may still be up for grabs and they would have to beat Michigan to get it.

There is a lot of reason to believe that Michigan State can improve its record in the conference. With as tight as a heavy majority of the games were last year, all State needs is a bigger offensive punch to help turn those one goal losses into one goal victories.

With a group of highly touted recruits inbound for their freshman year, including goalie Edwin Minney, forward Dylan Pavelek and defenseman Josh Jacobs, the Spartans will have an injection of talented young players that will try and help boost this team’s offensive output, which was tied for last in the Big Ten last year.

If the young guns can contribute, and veterans including captain Michael Ferrantino and junior goalie Jake Hildebrand can keep their solid play up, don’t be surprised if MSU can compete for a high seed in the Big Ten this season.

Brian Bobal is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.

Photo: Jonathan Yales