GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Every night for the last year, Ryan Miller has looked at a picture on his wall. In the photo, he’s not holding a trophy, he’s not celebrating yet another one of his shutouts.
Miller cut a picture out of a newspaper last year and put it on his wall, right above his light switch. It shows him reacting after giving up a goal in a NCAA first-round loss to Boston College last season.
It’s been a motivator for the sophomore, and it’s carried him and his Michigan State teammates all season long. The Spartans goaltender will have to pack that picture up and take it with him now, though.
He’s off to Albany.
Miller made 25 saves Sunday afternoon, leading Michigan State back to the Frozen Four with a 5-1 victory over Wisconsin in a NCAA quarterfinal game at Van Andel Arena.
Arguably the nation’s best goaltender, Miller had no trouble keeping the Badgers’ offense down. He made it look downright easy at times.
While he was never tested for long stretches, Miller’s performance was dominating. Chalk it up to that bad memory.
“That was kind of a tough pill to swallow,” Miller said of 2000′s first-round exit. “I knew if I could get back in this position, I’d just do whatever it takes to get the win.”
Oh, and that Spartans offense wasn’t too bad, either. It had its way with the Wisconsin defense — with some help from Badgers goaltender Graham Melanson — and put the Badgers away when they made their only push at getting into the game.
Down 2-0 and on the power play in the second period, Wisconsin cut the lead in half on a Matt Hussey goal. But just 12 seconds later, Michigan State’s John Nail put the nail in the coffin, scoring off a bad clearing attempt by Melanson to put the Spartans up 3-1.
“The third goal was the one that broke our back,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “We got ourselves back into it at 2-1 with the power-play goal, but didn’t have a chance to get any momentum going.”
Melanson, a senior, saw his career end in one of the worst possible ways. Not only did a number of his mistakes lead directly to goals for the Spartans (33-4-4), but he was injured with 5 minutes, 46 seconds left in the third period. He was helped off the ice with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left leg.
Nearly eight minutes into the first period, the Wisconsin goaltender saw his well-intentioned clearing attempt turned into disaster. At the top of his crease, he used his stick to trap a dump-in attempt. Melanson tried to advance the play by sending the puck out of the zone, but instead put it right on the stick of Spartans defenseman Jon Insana.
Insana gave Michigan State the lead with an easy tap-in.
“Maybe the first goal was an indication of things to come,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said.
Indeed it was.
Melanson’s second blunder was the killer. Seconds after the Badgers scored to make the game 2-1, he again tried to clear the puck out of the zone, this time from behind the net.
He sent it around the left boards, where Spartans forward Sean Patchell was waiting. Patchell sent it in front, and before Melanson could get back to the net, Nail had put MSU up 3-1.
“It obviously deflates the other team,” Patchell said.
Said Wisconsin captain Jeff Dessner: “It was pretty disheartening. You get the momentum going and they just crushed that.”
The Spartans later took advantage of another Wisconsin giveaway, on the power play in the third period, for a 5-1 lead.
Melanson stopped Joe Goodenow’s wraparound shot, but a Wisconsin defenseman cleared the puck to the left point, where Rustyn Dolyny collected it and fired it high past Melanson. The Spartans were 3-of-8 with the man advantage.
“When you give them a couple soft goals and give them the power-play opportunities,” Sauer said, “you’re not going to win many games.”
It was that kind of afternoon for the Badgers, who had plenty of good chances to get the puck past Miller. But key giveaways and the Spartans’ goaltender kept them from keeping the game close.
Miller, the Hobey Baker Award finalist who earlier this season set the NCAA career shutouts record as a sophomore, gave up some rebounds early, but settled down to control all the play around his net.
The Badgers’ best chance to get back in the game came when their best player was off the ice. Wisconsin (22-15-4) had three power-play chances early in the second period, but Dany Heatley was in the penalty box, serving a two-minute minor for unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10-minute misconduct penalty assessed at the end of the first period.
Just after the horn sounded, Heatley sent a shot on Miller. He then skated past the Spartans’ bench, where he was met by a group of Michigan State players. A brawl ensued, with each team having three players sent to the penalty box for the start of the second period.
But without Heatley, the Badgers scored their only goal of the game, on the power play. Rene Bourque stopped the puck behind the net and gave it to winger Andy Wheeler, who tried a wraparound attempt on the right side of the net.
Miller made the save, but the puck popped free to the left of the net, where Hussey put it in the net.
Michigan State responded in typical fashion, though. The Spartans didn’t flinch, rebounded immediately and took control back. Mason called his team the best he’s ever had at putting things behind.
“When you’re on the bench with these guys and a goal gets scored against us, I’ve been on teams where guys are upset and they get at each other on the bench,” Patchell said. “No one says words. It’s a lot of positive reinforcement.”
Hussey’s goal was the only blemish for Miller, who left with 3:06 remaining in the third period in favor of senior Joe Blackburn.
Miller skated off the ice to a loud round of applause, the kind fitting a senior leaving the ice for the last time.
But Miller will be back. In Albany, no less.