EAST LANSING, Mich. — The sixth meeting between the Michigan State Spartans under Rick Comley and the Northern Michigan Wildcats with Walt Kyle at the wheel went to the Spartans, 7-2.
Junior forward Kevin Estrada became the fourth player of the season to produce a hat trick to lead his team to victory in a chippy, physical game (Northern was whistled for 64 minutes, the Spartans for 62).
Here’s a little hockey history for all you fans out there.
Last year, Spartan coach Comley left the hockey program at NMU after 26 years to lead the Spartans, while his former player Kyle took up the reins. Kyle played for Comley for two seasons in 1980 and 1981 and was an assistant coach when the Wildcats won it all in 1991.
But to make the matchup even more of a grudge match, the last contest between these two teams was in the quarterfinals of the CCHA Super Six, when Northern Michigan knocked the Spartans out of by the score of 7-5, ending the Spartans’ chances at the NCAA tournament.
What better matchup for the first contest of the new year?
The Spartans took the early lead, just under six minutes in. While on the power play, freshman defenseman Chris Snavely shot from the left point, and the puck hit Kevin Estrada’s perfectly positioned stick in front of the net to slide past senior ‘Cats goaltender Craig Kowalski.
Almost five minutes later, freshman forward Chris Lawrence scored when he came up with the puck behind the net, skated to the top of the left circle and fired past Kowalski for Spartan goal number two.
The only goal in the second belonged to Spartan junior captain Jim Slater, who, receiving a pass from junior linemate Mike Lalonde, skated into the offensive zone with a defender between Slater and Kowalski. Slater, unable to shake his defender, took a shot from the right circle that rifled home to give the Spartans the 3-0 lead.
The third period saw another Michigan State goal early, with Estrada collecting his second goal of the evening on a shot with a man trailing that sailed past Kowalski.
After that goal, Kyle pulled Kowalski in favor of junior goaltender Tuomas Tarkki, who had what was arguably the best save of the evening, when he stopped sophomore forward Colton Fretter’s shot right on his doorstep with his catcher after Fretter received a pass off a teammate’s stick from the right side of the net.
The change of goalies gave the ‘Cats a spark that produced their first goal of the evening with perfectly executed passing on the power play. On the left point, sophomore forward Dirk Southern passed the puck to freshman forward Darin Olver in the left corner, who passed to freshman forward Pat Bateman out in front of the net. His shot slid between Spartan junior goaltender Matt Migliaccio’s pads.
It seemed as if Northern would sustain their rush a little longer, grab another goal or two, and make a game of it, but then Spartan freshman forward Drew Miller, the younger brother of standout goaltender Ryan Miller, found the back of the net for his first goal of the season and lifted the Spartans to a 5-1 lead.
Freshman defenseman A.J. Thelen found the back of the net with the Spartans’ second power-play goal of the evening and Estrada finished his hat trick on a breakaway to round out the scoring for the Spartans.
The ‘Cats scored again in the third on a goal from junior forward Dave Bonk to make the game 7-2, and that was all she wrote.
Kyle and his players were unavailable for comment after the game.
“I was really happy tonight,” Comley said. “I was really concerned going in with our lineup the way it is, not even knowing if Estrada would play until game time, and then he gets a hat trick, and playing against an outstanding goalie.”
Estrada had a nagging rib injury sustained earlier in the week in practice and was questionable until the drop of the puck.
“Tonight we worked hard to get some goals,” Comley said. “We’re just trying to survive right now. We have so many good players out of the lineup. I would expect [Northern Michigan] to be so much better tomorrow. I’m sure Kowalski will come back very determined.”
Comley’s expectation isn’t out of line. In the five previous meetings between the two teams, the loser on Friday night has triumphed on Saturday.
The win was due, however, Comley said. “I didn’t beat them much last year. They beat us three times and they beat us in the biggest one of the year in Joe Louis, so we’ve got some catching up to do.”
The Wildcats will get a chance to redeem themselves Saturday night at 7:05 at Munn Arena to close out the series, while the Spartans look to get the first weekend sweep of NMU with Comley behind the bench.