ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It wasn’t the way Ron Mason wanted to go out.
When Colorado College upset Michigan State 2-0 in the first NCAA West Regional game, the Tigers did more than end the Spartans’ season — they dictated MSU head coach Ron Mason’s final game.
“Like I always am [after a loss], I felt sick inside,” said Mason. “I really felt that we deserved at least one goal. We could have had a goal, at least. If it would have come when the game was one-nothing, it would have given us a lot of jump.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve been to the top of the mountain and haven’t been down very often.”
Between Mason and Colorado College head coach Scott Owens, Mason certainly has a higher profile, but it was Owens and his Tigers who eclipsed the winningest coach in college hockey and the Spartans, right from the initial drop of the puck.
Trent Clark netted the game-winner at 10:05 of the first and Alex Kim cemented the win early in the third in front of Jeff Sanger’s 25 saves, advancing the Tigers (27-12-3) to Saturday’s quarterfinal against No. 2 seed Minnesota at 4 p.m.
The Tigers outshot and outskated the Spartans in the opening period, posting 15 shots on goal to MSU’s five. Clark’s goal came after a successful MSU penalty kill, during which Michigan State netminder Ryan Miller denied both Clark and Kim from point-blank range.
When Brad Hutchinson sent the puck along the boards behind the MSU cage in an attempt to clear, Richard Petiot intercepted near the left circle, opposite Hutchinson. Petiot fired toward the net, and Clark redirected it. Grappling with a Spartan defender, Clark had his back to the net and his blade pointed toward center ice.
“The puck went out to Richard Petiot at the point, and I saw that he was about to shoot, and I knew that if we didn’t get any traffic in front of Miller he usually makes the save,” said Clark. “I tried to position myself between Petiot and Miller, and I saw that the puck was going a little wide … so I stuck my stick out with my backhand [and] kind of directed it toward the net. I got lucky and it went in.”
The puck went in off the heel of Clark’s blade, between Miller and the right post.
That first goal, said Owens, was the “real key” to the Tigers’ win.
“I was real happy with the way we came out in the first period,” said Owens. I thought we set the tone the way we wanted to play. We had several good scoring opportunities. Even though it was only one-nothing [after the first period], I thought that was very, very important to us. When you play a team like Michigan State, it’s important to get up on them and not let them get the lead.”
The Spartans came back with some drive in the second period, but in addition to having to battle the speedy Tigers, MSU also wrestled with the bounces. Early in the second, John-Michael Liles hit the post when Michigan State had a four-on-three advantage. The puck lay motionless in the crease, Sanger unable to reach it, until a CC defender cleared it out of harm’s way.
Just after the power play, Mike Lalonde hit the underside of the crossbar from just outside the crease. Again, the puck popped out of the immediate play.
“As with all year, we’ve had some problems scoring goals,” said Mason. “We didn’t get any breaks tonight, either, around the net.”
“We don’t take a single thing away from Colorado College,” said MSU captain Adam Hall. “I think they played a great hockey game tonight. I think we had our chances. We hit a post and a crossbar. I don’t think their goalie did a great job with rebound control, but it seemed like the rebounds were coming out where we weren’t.”
At 5:43 in the third, Kim capped the game for CC when he picked up his own rebound and made a nifty move to tuck the puck in behind Miller.
“When Alex scored the second goal, we started to relax a little bit,” Owens said.
The shutout was Sanger’s seventh of the season, and 16th of his career. It was the first time Michigan State had been shut out by an opponent since Jan. 12, the second time this season, and the first time ever that the Spartans had been shut out in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
“Whenever you play against a good goalie, there’s that pressure,” said Sanger of playing against last year’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner. “You know it’s going to be a close game. He played outstanding. He kept them in the game.”
The 2001-02 Michigan State squad posted a final season record of 27-9-5, but Mason said his work as head coach isn’t quite done.
“The last event for a coach each year — at least for me — is our hockey banquet. That’s probably the last thing I’ll do.”