EAST LANSING, Mich. — No. 2 Michigan came to Munn Arena Thursday with something to prove. Although this year’s senior class has won more than 75 games and had great playoff success in the past three seasons, it had yet to win a game in the barn of its biggest rival.
“Our seniors wanted to have a good game in here tonight,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “This is the last game at Munn for our seniors and they haven’t done very well.”
No. 14 Michigan State’s Bryan Lerg knocked in a centering pass with just under five minutes to play, but the Wolverines were able to fend off the Spartans to emerge victorious for the first time at Munn Arena since January of 2000.
After MSU’s (5-5-1, 3-4-0 CCHA) Jim Slater tied the game at 1 on a power-play goal, Michigan (8-2-1, 6-1-0) rattled off three of its own to break the game open, jumping out to a 4-1 margin and holding on for the win.
“I thought we had six defensemen who were playing well and we had four lines. Everyone contributed and it was hard for me to point to point to guys that didn’t have a good game and it’s not often that I can do that when we play here,” said Berenson.
Michigan proved its depth as billed, getting four goals from four different scorers. Although the Maize and Blue got a goal from prolific scorer T.J. Hensick, its other three tallies came from unusual places.
“Let’s face it, [David] Rohlfs picks up a loose puck and walks in on a breakaway. Then we got a goal from a defenseman on a broken play shorthanded. More often than not, these are the goals that make the difference between these two teams because they’re so evenly matched,” said Berenson.
Though not dominant, the Wolverines seemed to take advantage of every Spartan turnover, getting a couple bounces along the way.
“It was the difference in the hockey game for sure. They turned two turnovers into goals,” said Michigan State coach Rick Comley. “When we did make mistakes, they’re good enough to put the puck in the net.”
The strong play of Al Montoya did not go unnoticed. Although it’s expected of a great goaltender, Montoya delivered his strongest outing of the season, stopping 29 of 31 shots on the evening.
“I thought Montoya was excellent,” said Comley. “That’s as steady as I’ve seen him play. He was so solid controlling pucks and doing everything that they needed him to do. In the first period we could’ve gotten two or three and that would have made a big difference in the game.”
“I think Al knows he had to come in here and give us a chance,” said Berenson. “I thought he was solid, really looked solid, and that gives your whole team confidence. When a goalie makes it look easy, you know he’s playing well.”
His counterpart, Dominic Vicari, made 18 saves in the loss.
The backbreaker came by way of a shorthanded marker. Down 2-1 in the third period, the Spartans attempted to break out on the power play, but a miscue resulted in a two-on-one for Michigan. Vicari made the initial stop on David Moss, but Eric Werner joined the rush to bury the rebound.
The Wolverines’ Mike Brown added the final goal, stuffing home a rebound between Vicari’s skate and the left post on the doorstep.
The Wolverines buzzed early, forcing Michigan State into several turnovers with an aggressive forecheck. The Spartans could only dodge the bullet so many times before it turned into a Michigan goal.
T.J. Hensick, who was waiting at the top of the right faceoff circle, broke on a bad clearing attempt up the middle like a cornerback, gloved the puck and fired a laser over Vicari’s glove hand to give the boys in blue an early 1-0 lead.
Despite giving up the first tally of the game, MSU seemed determined to stick to its blue-collar approach of getting the puck deep, grinding it out, and using a cycle to create scoring opportunities. Overall, the Spartans bested the Wolverines in shots and dominated in puck possession, but had a difficult time generating quality scoring chances.
Michigan State pulled even after two consecutive power plays to start the second period. The Spartans came up empty on the first, a carry-over from the previous period, but cashed in on the second.
Colton Fretter, realizing that his defender had lost a stick, got a shot through his man and on net. Montoya fought off the initial rebound blow, but Jim Slater knocked home a third chance from the right edge of the paint.
Despite coming up short on Thursday, the Spartans hope that their late marker will help build momentum as the series moves to Ann Arbor. The 246th faceoff between the two is set for 7:30 at Yost Arena. Michigan holds a 123-111-11 edge all-time, but the series is a dead heat through the last three-plus seasons.