EAST LANSING, Mich. — Wednesday night at Munn Ice Arena, the U.S. National Under-18 Team showed Michigan State why the majority of its roster is on their way to the college level, despite losing an exhibition contest, 2-1.
Six minutes after the Spartans took a 1-0 lead on a power play, the U.S. National Team scored a power-play goal of their own to tie the game and wouldn’t surrender the game winner to the Spartans’ Kevin Estrada for more than thirty minutes.
In the first five minutes of the game, the Spartans took it to the U.S. National Team, hardly allowing the visitors to get a shot while peppering U.S. National Team goalie Jordan Pearce with shots. Pearce stood tall and prevented the Spartans from taking the game away from his teammates early, then kept them in contention throughout the game.
On the other end of the ice, freshman goaltender Dominic Vicari did the same for the Spartans as the game went on, making saves that he shouldn’t have been able to make and holding his own against the youngsters. He made an especially important save on Matt Kaiser when a bad turnover in the Spartan zone caused a 2-on-none as Kaiser chose to shoot instead of passing to his teammate to keep the score knotted at one.
Spartan captain Jim Slater started the scoring just over one minute into the contest when he deflected a shot from freshman A.J. Thelen past a screened Pearce to give MSU the lead.
Ironically, had Thelen not opted to attend Michigan State this fall, he would have been playing for the U.S. National Team against the Spartans.
Less than six minutes later, U.S. National player Geoff Paukovich grabbed the puck that Spartan sophomore defenseman Corey Potter fanned on and wrapped the puck around the left post to hit the right corner of the net to even the score at one apiece on the power play.
The second period was full of chances for both sides, with both goaltenders standing on their heads to keep their respective teams in the game. On the evening, Pearce made 34 saves, while his counterpart Vicari stopped 31 U.S. National shots.
But with 10:22 left in the exhibition, MSU’s Estrada skated behind the right side of the net, saw Pearce shift with his movement, and wrapped the puck around the other post to give the Spartans the lead they would defend to the end of the game.
The U.S. Nationals called a time-out with just under a minute left and planned to pull Pearce, but the Spartans kept the puck in the U.S. zone for so long that when they did manage to get Pearce on the bench, they only had 18 seconds to work with, which proved to be not enough time.
Despite the loss, U.S. National Head Coach John Hynes was upbeat about his team’s performance.
“I think we played very well in the first two periods, and kept in the game. Our goaltender played very well, I think our kids played our system very well. I think in the third period we didn’t come out with enough killer instinct,” Hynes said.
“I think when it was a tie game in the middle of the third period, it was almost like ‘hopefully we’re going to win’, instead of going out and doing it.”
Spartan Head Coach Rick Comley’s biggest concern coming into the game was that his team wouldn’t bring their ‘A’ game to the table on Wednesday night.
“The thing you’re always worried about is it’s an exhibition game at a difficult time of the year when exams are just over and your kids are ready to go home,” said Comley.
“All in all, they were diligent, Dom [Vicari] made a lot of real good saves the first half of the game and you win a game you could lose.”
The Spartans’ next action is Saturday, December 27th against Michigan Tech in the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament, while the USNTDP plays this weekend at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube against the Cleveland Barons of the North American Hockey League.