DETROIT — They say defense wins games, but could the No. 1 defense in the country topple the No. 1 offense in the CCHA?
No. 1 Michigan State failed to prove the old sports cliche true on Saturday night.
Michigan sophomore Andy Hilbert scored with 1:57 left in overtime to give the sixth-ranked Wolverines a 4-3 victory over the Spartans in front of 19,618 fans at Joe Louis Arena.
The win pulls the Wolverines (19-6-4, 13-4-2 CCHA) within three points of the first-place Spartans (21-2-4, 14-2-3).
“We got the break,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said of the game-winner. “It doesn’t mean first place, but it means we’re still in the hunt.”
Michigan State lost for the first time since a 2-1 loss to Nebraska Omaha on Oct. 20.
“It shows the character of this team,” Hilbert said. “We knew we couldn’t lose this thing. We were too psyched up, too excited.”
Michigan State goaltender Ryan Miller stopped 32 of 36 shots, but broke his three-game shutout streak.
“He’s a pretty realistic kid,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “I don’t think he had a chance on a couple of the goals. I’m not too worried about him.”
The Spartans had little worries about their first-period play, taking a 1-0 lead thanks to a turnover in the Michigan zone by Wolverines defenseman Jeff Jillson.
Troy Ferguson picked up Jillson’s errant pass, and on the 3-on-1 break, Rustyn Dolyny slapped it past Michigan goaltender Josh Blackburn.
“Our boys kept the puck in the zone in the first period really well,” Miller said. “Everybody thought we were just going to sit back and play defense. I think we surprised the hell out of people.”
Michigan’s offense came alive in the second period. Michigan took a 2-1 lead on tap-in goals by Josh Langfeld and John Shouneyia. Thanks to a tripping penalty on Michigan State’s John Nail, the Wolverines’ kickstarted their offensive flame on the power play. Langfeld tapped in a Mark Mink centering pass, saving a poor performance in the first minute and a half with the man advantage.
Michigan’s second goal was one for the highlight reel. Shouneyia’s original shot from the middle deflected off the goalpost. But Shouneyia then tapped the puck in mid-air past Miller giving the Wolverines a 2-1 lead.
The Spartans came back with two goals to close out the period within almost three minutes of each other. Troy Ferguson scored his first of the season, then Jon Insana added his second of the year to give the Spartans back the lead at 3-2.
It didn’t take long — 14 seconds into the third period — for the Wolverines to tie the game at 3-3. Hilbert scooted around the Spartans’ defense and found Mike Cammalleri in front of the goal. Cammalleri then got it past Miller for his 18th goal of the season and his sixth goal in three games.
The Wolverines controlled the tempo to their advantage for almost the entire third period, outshooting the Spartans 12-6 in the third stanza.
Michigan’s best chance came when sophomore J.J. Swistak stole the puck from Michigan State defenseman John-Michael Liles. Swistak had Miller one-on-one but couldn’t put it past the country’s best netminder.
As the final horn sounded, Michigan controlled most of overtime, knowing it needed a win a lot more to try and gain ground on the Spartans. Hilbert received a pass from Mark Kosick and put it through Miller’s five-hole, deciding the close game.
“It’s great to see that two teams in the state can play each other that hard,” Mason said. “Any team could have won.”
Michigan played without the services of sophomore forward Jed Ortmeyer. The sophomore is out for the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Notre Dame on Tuesday.
The Spartans played four-deep on defense without Joe Markusen, who sat out due to a game disqualification against Lake Superior State.
Miller and the Spartans haven’t given up four goals since the first game of the season and will have to recover on a road trip at Northern Michigan next weekend.
“Next week will tell of the character of this team,” Miller said.