EAST LANSING, Mich. — The statistics showed Northern Michigan’s weakness as it battled the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans for first place in the CCHA Thursday night: the Wildcats dead last in the conference on the penalty kill, and the Spartans number one on the power play.
So it should come as no surprise that Michigan State (6-1-1 overall, 5-1-1 CCHA) scored three goals on special teams, two power-play tallies and a Damon Whitten shorthanded game-winner to sneak by Northern Michigan 3-2 at Munn Ice Arena.
“Five on five, I thought we played well,” Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said. “We’ve come down here a lot (in the past) and have failed to play very well. The difference of the game tonight was the stretch of penalties.”
That stretch of three Northern Michigan penalties in the second period (Mike Sandbeck, Jimmy Jackson and Tim Lindberg) cost the Wildcats two goals.
Michigan State’s first power-play tally came when Jeremy Jackson centered the puck to Adam Hall, who slammed it past Northern Michigan goaltender Craig Kowalski to tie the game at 1-1.
That got rid of one penalty, but due to a blatant and seemingly unnecessary crosscheck by Lindberg, the Wildcats had 45 more seconds of two men down to kill off.
They got through first, but not the second, as Rustyn Dolyny’s point shot off the pads trickled to the right where Brian Maloney put it past the fledging Kowalski for a 2-1 Michigan State lead.
“(The penalty kill) has been our weakest area,” said Comley, who questioned a few of referee Mark Wilkins’ calls. “It’s the area we have to work the most in if we want to remain near the top of the league.”
Bryce Cockburn notched two goals in the game for the Wildcats (5-2-3, 3-2-2), the second of which tied it at two apiece. Cockburn wristed a shot from the right side of the boards over Michigan State goaltender Ryan Miller’s head and into the left corner of the net.
Whitten’s game-winner resulted from a goaltender’s whiff. No it’s not a strikeout, but it very well could have been.
As the puck entered the Northern Michigan zone, Kowalski trailed from the crease to play it, only to swing and miss at the puck. Whitten, coming straight at the play, strongarmed the defenseman and put a stick on the puck with enough juice to slide it into the net.
“It was a fluke goal; you’re not going to always get those,” Mason said. “The puck was in position for (Kowalski) to play. It was a goal of hard work — for a guy (Whitten) that works hard.”
The shots in the game ended 23-23, which proved even more clearly that Northern dominated much of the game at even strength.
“I was impressed with Northern Michigan,” Mason said. “They showed why they are a first-place team. You usually don’t know how good a team is until you play them. Their work ethic is great. Tonight, they forced us to work harder.”
The teams play again Friday night at Munn. Michigan State now leads in the CCHA standings with 10 points. Northern Michigan and Michigan have eight.
Mark Francescutti is a sports editor for The Michigan Daily (www.michigandaily.com)