EAST LANSING, Mich. — The age-old adage in the sports world dictates that the good teams always find a way to win.
Saturday night, at least, the Spartans proved that axiom truthful, overcoming a 2-1 deficit to sink Alaska-Fairbanks in overtime, 3-2.
When Sean Patchell netted the game-winner 7:18 into the extra frame, the 6,329 at Munn Arena exploded in clamorous delight, and the Spartans completed their first-round sweep of the Nanooks. MSU will move onto the CCHA tournament semifinals at Joe Louis Arena next weekend.
“We’re a team that’s won a lot of close games this year,” MSU coach Ron Mason said. “There was no panic in our locker room. We’ve won a lot of games at the buzzer, and I think that when you have that history, you’re just going to keep playing until you finally get a goal.”
In the previous evening’s contest, MSU all but determined the outcome within the game’s opening minutes. Saturday, a tight-checking, see-saw affair kept both teams on their toes and the fans on the edge of their seats.
The Spartans trailed 2-1 for most of the third period, bombarding UAF netminder Lance Mayes with shot after shot but unable to slip one past him. John Nail finally tied the game at two with 3:42 remaining with a power-play tally, recording his team-high 19th of the season on a Damon Whitten rebound.
Andrew Hutchinson put the original shot on net from the point, but was denied by Mayes. Whitten tried to blast the rebound home, but it was Nail’s backhand attempt that finally found the back of the net.
“People yesterday were asking me why I didn’t score and they were asking me why I was in a slump,” said Nail with a laugh. “I was telling them, ‘I’ll score the one that counts.’ Luck happened to go my way today. The puck came on my stuck with an empty net there, and I flipped it home.”
Although MSU completely dominated play in the third, outshooting Fairbanks 19-8, Nail’s marker was the only one the Spartans could muster. Mayes stayed rock-solid between the pipes, coming up with save after save on anything the opposition threw at him. The sophomore finished the night with 41 saves, and according to Mason, he was the main reason his team stuck around for the extra frame.
“I thought that the big difference tonight was their goaltender played extremely well and kept them in the game,” he said. “Fortunately, we were one goal down going into the third period, so we thought that we had a chance. We started to forecheck a lot more. We generated a ton of chances in that third period. We were the ones carrying the play, we were the ones getting the shots on goal. It took a power play to score, but you find ways to win.”
From the opening faceoff, it was obvious that Fairbanks wasn’t ready to roll over and die. An evenly-matched opening period saw both teams generate a handful of solid scoring chances, but neither squad was able to capitalize.
At the close of a scoreless first, MSU defenseman Jon Insana was whistled for checking from behind and penalized with a five-minute major. The junior was also issued a game misconduct, and with Kris Koski serving Insana’s time in the box, Fairbanks took advantage of the defenseman’s mistake.
Just 3:36 into the second period, the Nanooks drew first blood. Freshman Ryan Lang netted just his third goal of the season, beating MSU goalie Ryan Miller for UAF’s only power-play marker of the series. Teammate Cam Keith snuck a pretty centering pass around the Spartans’ Joe Markusen, and Lang was in perfect position to bang the puck past a sprawling Miller.
“The five-minute penalty call was the determining factor in giving them the life they needed to get that first goal,” said Mason. “That, I felt, really allowed them to play the game they played.”
The Spartans tied the game at 1-1 with just 3:32 left in the second. Brad Fast hit a streaking Brian Maloney with a pretty 90-foot pass from his own end, and Maloney did the rest. He skated in and fired from the near circle, and although Mayes was able to get a piece of the shot, the puck trickled past the goal line and into the net.
Less than a minute later, the Nanooks jumped ahead again, taking a 2-1 lead on Scott McIlroy’s fifth of the season. Capitalizing on a 2-on-1 breakaway, McIlroy took a feed from teammate Pat Hallett and slid it past Miller on his blocker side.
An hour later, however, MSU was celebrating its first-round sweep, and the Nanooks were packing up and heading back to Fairbanks.
“I always have faith in my forwards,” said Miller, who turned aside 31 shots in the win. “They’re going to come up with something.
“I just think they were keeping us in suspense,” he added with a laugh.
Miller, along with the rest of the Spartans, seemed impressed with the way UAF played. “I think we saw a great Alaska-Fairbanks team. Their style of play really took advantage of our lack of numbers in defensemen. You just have stay on top of things. You have to keep your team in it as long as you can, and I tried to do that. We got a goal to get back in it, and then we finished it off.”
For Patchell, a senior, the game-winner couldn’t have been a better way to say goodbye to Munn.
“It’s obviously pretty emotional,” he said. “I mean, it’s your last game here. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great career, to be able to finish it off like this. My family’s here, my girlfriend’s parents are here. To be able to do that in front of my family and friends and to cap it off like that, it’s really special.”
Mason added that despite the close game against the league’s 10th-best team, he was pleased that his team was able to get the victory and move on. “We’ll take it, and we’ll advance,” he said. “Tonight, when the chips were down in the third period, I thought we played our best hockey. Because of our best hockey, we generated a lot of good chances and a lot of great opportunities.
“I’m real proud of our kids.”
The Spartans will take on the winner of the CCHA tournament play-in game next Friday at Joe Louis Arena. Faceoff is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. EST.