DETROIT — The No. 7-seeded Northern Michigan Wildcats stunned the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans with a 2-1 win in the first CCHA Super Six quarterfinal game.
Kevin Gardner had the game-winning goal and an assist, and Tuomas Tarkki, who had just one decision during the regular season, made 35 saves for his third straight playoff win.
“The first thing I’d like to say is how proud I am of this entire group of guys,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “We were able to come here through difficult circumstances … and we found a real chemistry.”
This is the second consecutive year that the Wildcats upset the Spartans in the CCHA quarterfinals. When asked to give a summarizing statement after the game, MSU head coach Rick Comley said, “I don’t have one.”
“Walt’s an excellent coach,” Comley went on to say about his former assistant at NMU. “He did a great job. His kids played hard. We’re going to have epic battles over the years. That’s two in a row now.”
The long-shot Wildcats, who won two on the road against Alaska-Fairbanks to get to The Joe, were expected to be too tired to give the Spartans a real game, but the ‘Cats showed that they’d come to play when Alex Sawruk gave NMU the lead at just 1:11 into the first. Gardner passed up through center ice to Sawruk, who was driving in on the right wing. Sawruk’s shot from the circle squeaked under MSU goaltender Dominic Vicari’s legs to give the Wildcats the 1-0 lead.
Gardner scored himself at 6:05, another one-timer that got up and over Vicari’s left shoulder, making it 2-0 NMU.
“One of the keys for us tonight certainly was to come out and get a good start,” said Kyle. “We knew — I knew, and the coaches knew, but we didn’t share it with these guys — that as the night went on, we were going to get fatigued.
“If you’re tired as a team and you get a two-goal lead, obviously, that helps you very, very much.”
Brock Radunske brought the Spartans to within one at 8:20 in the second period, seconds after a five-on-three MSU advantage had expired. The Spartans were cycling the puck low and peppering Tarkki while the Wildcats struggled to reach rebounds; Radunske’s shot beat Tarkki on the stick side, from directly in front of the NMU crease.
From that point on, the game was a battle of wills, with only two penalties called — both against MSU — for the remainder of the contest.
Notably absent from the scoring chart was the line of Hobey finalist Jim Slater, Mike Lalonde and Tommy Goebel. Gardner, Sawruk and Alan Swanson were pitted against Slater’s line.
“All year long when Jim Slater’s line has gotten shut down, we’ve had trouble,” said Comley. “Kevin Gardner’s line did a good job, and they weren’t really a factor.”
The Spartans outshot the Wildcats 36-17, but many of those shots were either perimeter or clear enough for Tarkki to see. That’s not to say, however, that Tarkki, in for injured senior and captain Craig Kowalski, wasn’t a factor. Tarkki came up big against Slater on a breakaway at 13:54 in the first, then weathered a barrage of shots in every MSU power play.
“I have a tremendous respect for Michigan State and for Rick Comley,” said Kyle, who played for the MSU coach when Comley coached Northern Michigan. “I think he’s the best coach in the country; I have that much respect for him. They’re always a difficult opponent and I thought we beat a good team here tonight.”
Comley, however, was not impressed with his team’s performance. “We had some people that needed to play that didn’t.”
The Wildcats were 0-for-3 on the power play, the Spartans 1-for-4. Dominic Vicari made 15 saves on 17 shots.
Northern Michigan (21-14-4) advances to play No. 1, and rested, Michigan in Friday’s early semifinal game. “It’s not a good match,” said Kyle.
The Spartans (23-16-2) wait until Sunday to see if they’ll be invited to the NCAA Tournament.
“If you build something good,” said Comley, “it’ll come back to kick you.”