EAST LANSING, Mich. — It didn’t take No.1-ranked Michigan State long to assert itself as the dominant team Friday night.
Despite a morgue-like crowd at Munn, MSU was able to capitalize on early special-teams opportunities and coast to a 5-2 win over Alaska-Fairbanks.
Two of the Spartans’ three opening-stanza tallies came on the power play, and the team’s other early marker came with Andrew Hutchinson serving time in the penalty box. Ryan Miller and the MSU defense put the clamps on Fairbanks, and the Spartans poured in two more in the third to bury the Nanooks.
“Power plays come and go,” coach Ron Mason said after the win. “Our special teams were great early in the year. Penalty killing has been good all year, of course, but our power play was a little soft for a while. Tonight, it was on its numbers. Thanks goodness it was, because that gave us the edge to win the game.”
Just 3:48 into the opening period, MSU jumped out to a 1-0 lead behind a power-play marker from senior Sean Patchell. Stationed in front of goaltender Preston McKay, Patchell received a pretty feed from Brad Fast and flipped the puck past the Nanook netminder. It was just the winger’s fourth time tallying this season.
Less than five minutes later, the Spartans lit the lamp with a man advantage again. This time, junior Adam Hall netted his 17th of the year at the 8:40 mark, extending the MSU lead to 2-0. John-Michael Liles fired a low slapshot from the point, and Hall was able to get a stick on the puck and deflect it past a stunned McKay.
UAF forward Jim Lawrence got the Nanooks on the board at the 12:36 mark, tipping a shot from teammate Chad Hamilton past Miller, giving the Nanooks a glimmer of hope that would soon be extinguished.
With just over two minutes left in the first, the Spartans’ special teams struck again. This time, it was the nation’s top-ranked penalty kill that stole the show, tallying the Spartans’ third shorthanded goal in the last month of play.
Brian Maloney took advantage of a Nanook miscue, skating into the UAF zone with Rustyn Dolyny and only McKay between them and the Spartans’ third goal. Maloney centered for Dolyny, who slid the puck back to his teammate on the far side of the net. Maloney buried the puck into a near-empty net, running the MSU lead to an insurmountable 3-1.
“It just happened that I saw him coming down on a rush,” Dolyny said of Maloney. “Brad Fast got the turnover and chipped it up. I was actually going to change, but when Brian was home-free, I joined him on it. I was dead tired, but when you get a 2-on-0, you have to take advantage of it.”
After sleepwalking through the second, the Spartans bounced back in the game’s final stanza to tack on two more. Maloney tallied for the 14th time this season at the 3:29 mark, and Dolyny netted his 12th just over eight minutes later. Fairbanks finally responded at the 16:33 mark, netting their second goal of the evening on Pat Hallett’s seventh of the season, but it was too little too late. Just over three minutes later, the Spartans were celebrating their first tournament win.
“I have a lot of respect for Fairbanks,” said Mason. “I had it the last time they were here, and I think I reinforced that thought tonight. When they were down 5-1, I thought they were the better team on the ice. They played harder, took advantage of us, and for most of the night, in 5-on-5 even-strength hockey, they were as good as we were.”
Maloney finished the night with a pair of goals and an assist to pace the Spartan offense, while Dolyny tallied once and added two helpers. Hall also notched a goal and an assist in the victory.
Miller, despite surrendering an uncharacteristic two goals, finished the night with 32 saves. He also stood tough and played a big part in the Spartans’ killing of all four UAF power-play chances.
The MSU power play netted three goals for only the third time this season, converting on three of five man-advantage opportunities.
“Special teams is one of those things that can be up and down all year long,” Hall said. “That’s why we went through a long drought there. Right now, we seem to be riding it pretty well and getting a lot of good shots. I think the guys’ confidence is pretty high.”
Despite the impressive victory, MSU was actually outshot by the Nanooks, 34-31. Coupled with the Spartans’ occasional defensive lapses, UAF’s edge in shots on net gave Mason a valid reason for concern.
“From what I can see of Fairbanks, we’ve got our hands full tomorrow night,” he said. “Their team is a very tenacious hockey team, and they’re not going to give up. I’m just really impressed with the way they played.”
These teams will battle again at Munn Arena Saturday night. The Spartans will look to sweep the Nanooks and move onto round two of the CCHA playoffs, while UAF is hoping to even the series.
Faceoff is scheduled for 7:05 EST.