EAST LANSING, Mich. — Before the start of the season, both teams had circled this weekend’s series on the calendar as a litmus test. Although Michigan State struggled out of the gates and lost its preseason top-ten ranking, the Spartans saw a matchup with previously-unbeaten and eighth-ranked Cornell as an opportunity to prove something.
“When you play a team that’s ranked that high nationally and as good a team and so big and strong, it was very tough and our kids played their hearts out all weekend,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
“I think we’re frustrated and it’s been a tough start for us, but we know that this team is capable and we’re in a stretch of games that are as tough as anyone in the nation. We’ll know a lot more when [six games against Cornell, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota] are over.”
“There’s a reason why they were picked top ten to start the season by everybody,” said Cornell coach Mike Schaefer. “They’ve got depth, their goaltender played well, and this is a tough place to play. We used this weekend [as a test]; UNH came in here and lost 5-1 and we haven’t really been challenged yet this season.”
Friday’s tilt echoed the importance of the series, giving fans and players a glimpse into what both teams might expect playing hockey in April as the teams played to an impressive draw. The tie put extra emphasis on Sunday’s matchup for both teams to find identity and build momentum.
MSU (5-4-1) got two goals from a couple of freshmen and a shutout from Dominic Vicari to best the Big Red 2-0, handing Cornell (4-1-1) its first loss of the season.
Neither team showed any signs of giving in after Friday’s knock-down, drag-out overtime battle, sticking to the game plan of getting the puck deep, grinding it out, and cycling to create quality chances. Much like last game, Michigan State seemed to execute better coming out of the gates, generating several chances right in front of Cornell goaltender David McKee.
One of those cycles came high to Spartan defenseman A.J. Thelen, who wasted no time in blasting a slapshot through a clean shooting lane. McKee could only kick the puck out to the bottom of the right circle where freshman Bryan Lerg collected the loose puck and found daylight between McKee’s pads for a 1-0 lead late in the first period.
Chris Mueller added a goal early in the third period to give MSU breathing room. The feisty freshman picked up a loose puck in the slot, got McKee to go down, and neatly tucked the puck inside the post for his first collegiate tally.
“When your upperclassmen are struggling to score then you need somebody to pick up the slack. It just takes so much pressure off of them when that happens,” said Comley. “We believe all believe that we can be a very good team when Slater’s line starts scoring, but everyone had to contribute for us to win today.”
The Big Red had a pair of power plays in the second frame, but was unable to come up with an equalizer. Chris Abbott had the best scoring chance for Cornell, flipping a backhand shot high over Vicari’s shoulder that clinked off the right post. Ryan O’Byrne had a chance to knock the bouncing puck into the net, but Vicari doubled back to kick his shot out and hold the lead.
The Big Red, played stronger territorial, possession hockey in the second and third periods, but Vicari had an answer for everything he saw.
“By the time the second period rolled around, enough was enough and we finally started working,” said Schaefer. “I was very happy when we started thinking the game a little more.
Cornell fought its way toward a goal until the final buzzer sounded, getting its finest flurry off during a late man advantage and extra-attacker situation, but could not find the back of the net.
“A lot of that flows out of the respect our guys had for their goaltender,” said Comely. “When someone at the other end is playing really well, I think you know that you have to match him save for save.”
Vicari was not called on to make very many spectacular saves, but he was solid in net for MSU, finishing the game with 32 saves to bring his weekend totals to 52 of 53.
“He tends to start [the season] slow, but he certainly looks very focused right now,” said Comley. “He was big when we needed him, and that was at the end with the power play and the pulled goalie.”
One game-saver comes to mind with Vicari making a sliding pad save coming across the crease to deny a Cornell two-on-one bid in the third.
Not to be outdone, McKee did his part in keeping it a close couple of games this weekend. While the Cornell offense was dormant, the Big Red goaltender stopped 56 of 59 shots on the weekend.
“Now we know that we need to make some adjustments to shore things up a bit, but we know that we have a good team and they have a good team. Hopefully if the stars align right, we’ll meet each other again in the NCAA tournament.”
Both teams will look to take something from this hard-fought series over into the coming week. State will face rival Michigan on Thursday at Munn while Cornell returns to league play this weekend.