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Don't look but shootouts are deciding the Big Ten hockey race

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The MVP play of Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand and success in shootouts have the Spartans ahead in the Big Ten entering the final weekend of regular season play.

Michigan State goalie Jake Hildebrand stopping Boston University's AJ Greer (26) earlier this year.
Michigan State goalie Jake Hildebrand stopping Boston University's AJ Greer (26) earlier this year.
Matt Dewkett

You can make a good case for Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand being the Big Ten's MVP.

That's especially true if we're just talking about the second half of the season Big Ten conference play. Hildebrand, a junior from Butler, PA, leads the conference in about every major goaltending category. The 5'11", 182 lbs Spartans goalie has the best save percentage (.940%), goals against average (1.88), and most shutouts (5) by far in 99.5% of MSU's minutes. Only Minnesota's Adam Wilcox (2 shutouts) has more than one in Big Ten play entering the final weekend.

Hildebrand's.953 save percentage since the beginning of the second half is the best in the nation. This in a year where scoring has been down across the board.

And Hildebrand also is a big reason Michigan State (16-14-2, 10-6-2-2 Big Ten) could win the 2015 Big Ten despite being 32nd in the Pairwise (behind 3 others in the conference) and have a team Corsi that's about as even as you can (49.9%).

In a team sport, the difference between Michigan State winning the Big Ten regular season title and starting the conference tournament on Thursday is the extra points the Spartans have picked up in shootout wins. The Spartans have gone 2 for 2 in the individual skills contest with wins over Minnesota and Penn State.

Hildebrand in them has been his normal self, stopping 8 of 9 shooters in the two charity point contests.

Perhaps fittingly for a conference still trying to make peace with the hardcore fans, the (at least to the old school) devil instrument known as the shootout has a major role in deciding a winner and who gets first-round byes.

Here's the present Big Ten standings with 2 games remaining:

  1. Michigan State - 34 points
  2. Michigan - 33 points
  3. Minnesota - 33 points (The Wolverines hold the tiebreaker with more conference wins [11 to 10])
  4. Penn State - 31 points
  5. Ohio State - 21 points
  6. Wisconsin - 10 points

Big Ten games are all worth 3 points. A regulation or OT win gets all 3, a shootout win is worth 2, a shootout loss is worth 1 and a regulation or OT loss does not give a point. The top 2 teams receive first round byes in the Big Ten conference tournament next week in Detroit, Michigan

It's those shootout losses, an ongoing story for Minnesota (19-12-3, 10-5-3-0 Big Ten), which have finally caught up to the Gophers at the end of the regular season. Three times Minnesota has technically tied a game in Big Ten play. Three times the other team has taken the extra point. Just one of those two shootout losses to Wisconsin (4-24-4, 2-14-2-2 Big Ten) going the other way would have the Gophers and Spartans tied for first place. (Michigan State would hold the tiebreaker for seeding purposes, but both would be co-champions.)

Turn around two of the three "results" or just the six round Minnesota-Michigan State shootout in East Lansing on December 6th and there is a new leader.

For what it's worth, Michigan (19-13-0, 11-7-0-0 Big Ten) has not had a tie/shootout this year. Penn State (18-12-4, 10-7-1-0 Big Ten) has just had the one. (By the way, turn around just the result of Penn State and Michigan State's shootout on January 24th and there would be a three-team tie at first with the Nittany Lions one point behind. What a final weekend that would have been.)

I've written about shootouts and how they mystify Minnesota and me. They still do. The sad thing, at least if you're a Minnesota fan reading this, is that the Gophers would be the ones ahead if games did not end with them.

Without shootouts, as 4 of the other 5 conferences have (only the NCHC also institutes shootouts for conference games), and using a 2 point for a win, 1 point for a tie structure, this is what the Big Ten standings would look like:

  1. Minnesota (10-5-3): 23 points
  2. Michigan (11-7-0): 22 points
  3. Michigan State (10-6-2): 22 points
  4. Penn State (10-7-1): 21 points
  5. Ohio State (7-11-0): 14 points
  6. Wisconsin: (2-14-2): 6 points
Still an interesting final weekend except in the two point structure Minnesota and Michigan State switch spots. The Gophers would be in the driver seat for an unprecedented fourth consecutive regular season conference title. The Spartans would be third, losing the first tiebreaker with Michigan. As is with the three point structure, all four of the top teams are within a game of first place in the two point structure.

All is there regardless for what should be an interesting final weekend of play. Minnesota and Penn State square off while Michigan and Michigan State do the same.

Still, in fairness to shootouts, for as good or bad as they are in deciding the conference can be, it's not the only factor. There are plenty more. It's just one that further helps show off the importance of Michigan State's goaltender and shows how much one small change can make a difference.

The Spartans have had to win games, relying on Hildebrand with an offense (2.33) that team-wise is only ahead of Wisconsin in the Big Ten in goals per conference game. The team has done so, winning ten games in regulation and being the only one to defeat the Gophers at home so far this year.

And that's important too whether we're talking about 2 or 3 points.

With two ties to last place Wisconsin and overtime losses to Michigan and Penn State (albeit the latter occurred with a last minute comeback to tie), the missed opportunities for the Gophers this season compared with saved opportunities - getting one of the Wisconsin ties and coming back from a 3 goal deficit to win against the Spartans - line up far beyond playing in a conference with shootouts.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --