DETROIT — No. 1 Michigan State all but guaranteed itself the CCHA regular-season championship Saturday night with a 4-2 victory over No. 5 Michigan at Joe Louis Arena.
The win pulls the Spartans six points ahead of the Wolverines in the CCHA standings with three games remaining. Barring a complete collapse, Michigan State will win the CCHA crown.
The victory also marked career win No. 600 at Michigan State for head coach Ron Mason, who said he didn’t even realize the milestone was imminent until an hour and a half before game time. Mason, who has won more career games than any coach in NCAA history, is third on the list for most wins at one school, behind Boston University’s Jack Parker and Bemidji State’s Bob Peters.
Meanwhile, tournament hopes are a big concern for Michigan, which is on a deep low and searching for answers after one of its poorest performances since getting embarrassed at the Great Lakes Invitational.
“Right from the start we didn’t show up to play,” J.J. Swistak said.
Michigan State didn’t allow a shot by Michigan for almost seven minutes in the first period, halting the Wolverines’ potent scoring attack to just five shots in the opening 20 minutes.
“We never got the momentum,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We were tentative. They got the puck in our zone and pressured us. Our defensemen struggled with that. They didn’t give us much — we didn’t earn much.”
The Spartans’ pressure culminated in a strike with two minutes remaining in the first stanza. Seventeen seconds after killing off a penalty, Andrew Bogle backhanded a shot past a screened Josh Blackburn to give Michigan State a 1-0 lead.
Michigan responded in the second with a power-play tally from Craig Murray, who scored for the first time in over six weeks.
But while the Wolverines got the premier goal with the man advantage, the Michigan State special teams took control from then on.
After giving up two power-play goals and a shorthanded tally in a 4-4 tie with Notre Dame on Friday night, Michigan’s woes appeared again.
Michigan State junior Adam Hall scored on the power play and then shorthanded to give the Spartans a 3-1 lead.
First, Hall tapped in a centering pass from Brian Maloney that was just out of the reach of Josh Blackburn’s stick to make it 2-1.
Michigan sophomore Andy Hilbert had a chance to break the Spartans’ momentum, receiving a quick centering pass with an open right side of the net before him. But Ryan Miller, as he’s proven much of the year, recovered to the weak side and scooped up Hilbert’s shot with his glove hand.
“It was a good turning point,” said Miller, who stopped 25 of 27 shots.
“When you’ve got a great goaltender, you expect him to turn the corner,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “Ryan turned the corner.”
About a minute after Miller stopped Hilbert, Hall put a big nail in Michigan’s coffin, tallying a shorthanded goal off Michigan defenseman Jeff Jillson’s turnover.
“As of late, special teams has been our Achilles’ Heel,” Berenson said.
Hall’s two goals on the night, along with Maloney’s goal, which made it 4-1 Michigan State, ended the duo’s four-game scoring drought.
“It gets frustrating when you go awhile without scoring,” Hall said. “So maybe that’s why [Maloney] and I both got one tonight.”
Michigan has won only two of its last six games, a cause of concern this late in the season.
“Everyone needs to stay together,” Swistak said. “There’s no pointing fingers.”
The Wolverines also lost senior Josh Langfeld in the second period with a severely bruised knee. Langfeld could be out for two to four weeks.
“Langfeld is a real big loss,” Swistak said. “He’s been the best forward on the ice the last two months.”
Already without sophomore Jed Ortmeyer, Langfeld’s injury means the Wolverines will enter the playoffs without two of their top seven forwards.
“The season is not over,” Berenson said. “The race for first place is over, but we’ve got a lot to play for.”