EAST LANSING, Mich. — With just 1:21 remaining in Saturday night’s contest, the 6,701 boisterous fans packed into Munn Arena rose to their feet. Although Michigan State held a commanding 3-0 lead over Alaska-Fairbanks, the team’s 17th CCHA victory was the farthest thing from the fans’ minds.
Netminder Ryan Miller, the team’s impenetrable force between the pipes, was on the verge of putting his indelible mark on the NCAA record books. The sensational sophomore needed just one more whitewash to top Wally Easton’s all-time mark for shutouts, and as visiting Alaska-Fairbanks began its second power play of the night, the fans put their full support behind Miller.
As it turns out, this story would come to a close in fairy-tale-like fashion. With loud, continuous support from the throng of Spartan faithful, Miller and MSU’s top-ranked penalty kill shut down the Nanooks for the rest of the third. When the final horn sounded, the Spartans had a 3-0 victory, and Miller had his record-breaking 17th shutout.
“To finish it up at home is great,” Miller said. “It was nice to celebrate in front of the fans and my family especially. All the students, all the people who have been coming here for all these years, that’s incredible.”
As soon as the game was over and the shutout was official, pandemonium broke out in Munn. The entire Spartan squad flew out from behind the bench, mobbing Miller in a moment of joyous jubilation.
Once he received obligatory congratulations from opposing players, as well as the referees, the goaltender skated back to the Spartan bench. There, a giant hug from coach Ron Mason was waiting for him.
“I skated over to Mason, and he gave me a hug,” said Miller. “You don’t often see that guy hug a whole lot in public. It felt special. It was incredible.”
When it came time to announce Miller as the game’s No. 1 star, the Spartan fans erupted in a bevy of ear-splitting noise.
“It’s always great for everyone to see something like that,” said Mason. “It’s something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives. A 70-year-old record, that doesn’t happen every day. It’s just amazing.”
Miller made a total of 19 saves over the course of the history-making contest, stopping a few outstanding Nanook scoring chances. In an opening period that saw Fairbanks assert itself as the dominant team, Miller came just inches away from losing the shutout on more than one occasion.
“In that first period, I was really lucky a few times,” Miller said with a laugh. “They hit a few posts there.”
Besides banging a few posts, UAF controlled the flow of play from the outset. Until midway through the second, it appeared as though it was the No. 1 team and the Spartans were the unranked squad.
“We came out kind of with our heads in the clouds,” said forward Damon Whitten. “Coach called a timeout [in the first] and got us going. I think it says something of our team to be able to rebound from that.”
During the timeout, Mason lit into his players and told them to pick up their play. Although the Spartans continued their sluggish performance through the rest of the first, the break proved to be effective in the long run.
Ten minutes into the second, the momentum began to slowly shift to the home team’s side. At the end of the period, defenseman Andrew Hutchinson netted his fifth goal of the season with just 36 seconds remaining. The Spartans’ opening marker was the junior’s second tally in as many nights.
John Nail tacked on No. 2 early in the third, giving MSU a comfortable 2-0 lead. The senior received a gorgeous centering feed from Sean Patchell, and one-timed his 15th marker of the season over the right shoulder of goalie Lance Mayes.
Just over eight minutes later, Whitten tacked on the Spartans’ third and final tally, banging home a one-timer from the slot. Rustyn Dolyny was credited with an assist for his beautiful centering pass.
For No. 1-ranked MSU, the victory was its third-straight, and the team’s 24th of the season. Outshooting Fairbanks 30-19, the Spartans ran their record to 24-3-4 overall and 17-3-3 in the league. With a Michigan loss to Northern Michigan, the Spartans also extended their CCHA lead to a comfortable five points.
The Nanooks, on the other hand, dropped their fourth straight. Through 24 league contests, UAF is 6-12-6 in the CCHA and 8-14-6 overall.
“Hey, I give a lot of credit to Alaska,” said Mason. “They were all over the puck. They just started getting bounces, and they got all the loose pucks. We got a little more jump after the timeout, and I thought we played well the rest of the way.”
Miller agreed, noting the Nanooks’ tendency to play better in the second game of a weekend series.
“Coach reminded us that they’re a second-night team,” he said. “They came out playing well. We kind of turned it around and controlled the third.”
Next up for the Spartans is their third game of four against the arch-rival Michigan Wolverines. Game time is set for 7:35 p.m. Eastern on Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.
Fairbanks, on the other hand, will try and regroup at home with a two-game set against Miami next Friday and Saturday.