MSU hockey falls to Wisconsin in final regular season game, still walks away with Big Ten title

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MSU Hockey/Caples

After clinching its first-ever Big Ten regular season title, the Michigan State hockey team looked to sustain its intensity to finish off the series against the Wisconsin Badgers. However, the Badgers were not ready to be swept, once again, by the newly crowned Big Ten champions and took the 4-1 victory on their senior night.

“We knew going in it was going to be a tough game,” head coach Adam Nightingale said. “You have to give [Wisconsin] some credit, they are one of the top teams in the country for a reason.”

In this second-half stretch of the season, this Spartan team has played much more time down than they did in the first half. They have come back in big ways or fell down and never recovered. This game felt a bit different. 

The Spartans had the fight in them, they kept pushing, but in the end, Wisconsin was the better team on Saturday. While Michigan State took the conference title, Wisconsin has sat in the top five in the national polls for months and was never too far behind the Spartans. Wisconsin was never going to make this series easy for Michigan State. Even in the 5-2 game on night one, it was a neck-and-neck battle until the final minutes when some empty netters secured a Spartan win. However, both these teams showed grit and determination until the final minutes, no matter the score, which shows how worthy they are of their conference and national rankings. 

“We are playing really good teams the rest of the way,” Nightingale said. “Knowing that we have that resiliency within our locker room is huge.”

In a similar fashion to the first night, the Badgers came out hot with a goal from freshman forward Sawyer Scholl just a minute and thirty seconds into the period. Just a few minutes later, Artyom Levshunov would get called for boarding, and seconds into the man advantage, senior forward Carson Bantle got the puck through traffic and put the Badgers up 2-0. The Spartans looked asleep in the opening minutes, letting aggression get the better of them while losing the neutral zone battle, and making sloppy passes. The Spartans started this game on auto-pilot and the Badgers quickly took advantage. 

After two back-to-back Badger penalties, Michigan State got some time in the offensive zone and took advantage of it. 5th-year forward Nico Müller, behind the net, fed sophomore forward Karsen Dorwart on the circle for the one-timer that got over senior goaltender Kyle McClellan. Michigan State got some momentum, but penalties stacked up early for the Spartans and they struggled to get back into the offensive zone. Freshman goaltender Trey Augustine, despite letting in two early goals, was a huge factor in keeping the Spartans in the game early on, with 21 saves in the first period alone.

On night one the Spartans struggled in the shot count early and clawed their way back in the second and third periods. The team mirrored that second period of night two, the Spartans spent much more time in the offensive zone, leading the period shot count 14-10, however not all shots were quality looks. The Spartans weren’t making as many passes and getting shots blocked. The period was looking to end scoreless, but with just under five minutes to play, the Badgers rushed into the offensive zone and Bantle got his second of the night to silence the buzzing Spartans. 

The third period saw limited action, with neither team able to get much set up offensively. The Spartans had some clean looks, but McClellan shut them down. The action continued to go back-and-forth, until Augustine was pulled, and Scholl got his second of the night on an open net, to complete the Badger victory.

While the sweet taste of a Big Ten title will stay with the Spartans as they return to East Lansing, the bitterness of this loss may linger. This young team has made it to the top but now will face the incredibly tough challenge that is playoff hockey. It will be important for the team to stay the course and block out the noise. Looking ahead, the Spartans have some time off with the first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, but knowing this team, rest is the last thing on their minds. 

“It’s a really good opportunity to improve at everything,” Dorwart said. “Just got to take advantage of that time.” 

Sitting fifth in the Pairwise rankings, Michigan State’s season is far from over. The Spartans will play the winner of the Michigan vs Notre Dame series in the quarterfinal game at Munn Ice Arena on March 16th.

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