DETROIT — After losing to Michigan State in a 1-0 thriller at Joe Louis Arena Saturday night, Michigan and its fans had to do something unheard-of: hope Ohio State would win.
The Buckeyes were hosting Miami, which trailed the Wolverines by one point in the conference standings. A RedHawks victory would give them the CCHA regular-season title, while an Ohio State win would put Michigan on top.
“I’m a big Ohio State fan right now,” Michigan sophomore Jeff Tambellini said after the Wolverines’ loss. He added that it was the first and “probably the last time” he would root for the Buckeyes.
When Michigan’s game ended, Ohio State led 4-2. The RedHawks rallied to tie the game in the third period and give the Wolverines a scare, but the Buckeyes came out on top 5-4.
That meant Michigan’s 38 points would be enough give the program its eighth CCHA regular-season championship. Miami finished second with 37 points, and the Spartans (21-15-2 overall, 17-9-2 CCHA) took third. Michigan (23-11-2, 18-8-2) could have clinched a share of the title, regardless of how Miami fared, with a win Saturday night. The Wolverines tied the Spartans Friday.
“Obviously we would have liked to have won the games (this weekend), but we’ve earned it,” Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson said. “It’s been a long year. We’ve done a lot of good things over the year, and I think the kids have really done a nice job and earned it.”
Michigan State junior Mike Lalonde made sure that Michigan would have to sweat out its title chances. Lalonde pounced on a rebound and backhanded it into the net at 14:24 of the third period to give the Spartans the go-ahead goal. His linemates, Tommy Goebel and Jim Slater, assisted on the goal, Lalonde’s team-leading 21st of the season.
Michigan State goaltender Dominic Vicari said he knew it would be a close game from the start, and was thrilled when he finally saw the light go off behind Michigan’s net. “I tried not to get too excited, but inside I was about to burst,” he said. Vicari then had to make several saves, as Michigan desperately tried to tie the game in the final five minutes.
Michigan State coach Rick Comley said the win should give the Spartans some confidence heading into the playoffs.
“We’ve had so many tough losses this year; it’s been a frustrating year. But when you win a tough game here, 1-0, that does a lot for your psyche,” Comley said.
Michigan finished the season 0-3-1 after dropping two to Notre Dame last weekend and then getting just one point out of the series with the Spartans. But Michigan coach Red Berenson said this game was “actually a step in the right direction.”
“Both teams played like they were playing for the Stanley Cup,” Berenson said. “There wasn’t much to choose from between the teams. Our team played as well and as hard as they can play, and they just couldn’t score.”
The goaltending was stellar at both ends of the ice. Vicari, a freshman, made 34 saves in the shutout. Sophomore Al Montoya stopped 25 shots for Michigan.
Typical of a matchup between the two rivals, the game came down to the final period after the teams traded unsuccessful scoring chances in the first two periods.
After a quiet opening period, in which Michigan outshot Michigan State 10-8, the pace picked up in the second. Michigan had two great scoring chances near the end of the period. Junior Michael Woodford caught Michigan State off-guard on a line change and streaked into the Spartan zone alone. With a potential 1-0 lead on his stick, Woodford whiffed on the shot.
Shortly afterward, Milan Gajic blasted a shot from the left circle. It got past Vicari, but sat in the crease until Michigan State cleared it away.
A minute later, the Spartans looked to have a chance of their own on a shorthanded breakaway. But Montoya saw the play developing and decided to stop it before Michigan State got off a shot. The goaltender skated out of his crease, fell, got back up, and skated to a spot between the left circle and the blueline, where he poke-checked the puck away from the oncoming Spartan.
Both teams will host first-round CCHA playoff series next weekend.