EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State used a three-goal third period to best Bowling Green 6-3 on Saturday, keeping the Spartans’ hopes alive in the race for CCHA home ice and the national picture.
Down 3-2 with two minutes remaining in the second period, things were looking bleak for MSU, but Drew Miller netted two goals in seven minutes to bring the Spartans back from a guaranteed playoff series on the road, and a possible trip to Fairbanks.
With desperation setting in and the clock winding down on the Spartans, Miller picked up a loose puck behind the net on the power play and slammed home a wraparound goal through Falcon netminder Jordan Sigalet.
Miller struck again for the game-winner with the score knotted at 3 five minutes into the final frame. This time he was the beneficiary of some hard work down low when Colton Fretter dug out a puck against the end boards to Jim Slater. Slater flung a blind pass to Miller, who swept a rebound past Sigalet to give the Spartans the lead for good.
The two-goal outburst was a welcome departure from an evening ago when a frustrated Miller was searching for answers from his Hobey Baker award-winning brother.
I was really frustrated with myself and the outcome last night [2-1 loss to BG]. I had to talk to my brother [Ryan Miller] on the phone to settle myself down,” said Miller. “I felt like I was out there working hard, but nothing was getting accomplished. I think I was trying too hard, and I need to just read and react and play the game of hockey. So many guys care so much about the team, and guys are thinking too instead of just playing.”
Despite an adjustment from a role as a defensive forward to a player that the Spartans will depend upon for offensive production, Miller remained positive that he can continue to help his team score tough goals in tight games.
“My role has definitely changed, but it’s not just about scoring goals. I base my game around getting other guys goals and making things happen. My role has [grown] this year, but I welcome the responsibility,” said the sophomore assistant captain.
The Spartans’ outburst may have been a few weeks in the making considering that Coach Rick Comley has toyed with the idea of a Drew Miller — Jim Slater — Colton Fretter line for much of the second half.
“We put them together late in both Michigan games when we came back to tie. Tonight they were pretty darn good, and we keep looking for something that’s going to work,” said Slater.
Although the trio has been featured during crunch time, it’s the first time all season that they started and finished a game together. It may be a sign of desperation for a team that has struggled putting the puck in the net for most of the season.
“You create those lucky bounces by hard work,” said Slater. “Miller just has the knack of being at the right spot and Fretter just works so hard. Those guys are keys to our team.”
Last night we played about as well as you can play on the road, and we couldn’t get any puck luck at all. Tonight some pucks dropped and went in the net. As games diminish they become more and more important,” said Comley.
The games become more and more important as the Spartans find themselves mired in a five-team race for the final two home-ice spots in the CCHA playoffs as well as hanging around in the middle teens of the PairWise Rankings.
“[Knowing that one more loss would put us out of home ice] we played with a lot of energy and a lot of heart because as bad as the season may have been we have a chance for home ice,” said Miller.
“With the win we’re still within striking distance of being at home. I haven’t given up nationally either because of our quality wins,” said Comley. “We need to win now, but we’re not out of it; we’re still playing for league situations and national situation.”
As with so many CCHA contests this year, both teams relied heavily on the play of their special teams. After seeing six power-play goals scored in the first 40 minutes, the Spartans took advantage of an Alex Foster major penalty for two more goals with the man advantage in the final 90 minutes of the game to pull away.
“We just took too many penalties to be successful,” said Bowling Green coach Scott Paluch. “The skilled players on the power plays really made some great plays, some really good passes.
“I thought we played a very good road game. I liked our pressure, the scoring chances that we created, and the special teams game just got the better of us.”
The problem was that neither team could be faulted for its production. Bowling Green was a perfect three-for-three with the extra man while MSU clicked for five power-play goals.
While the Spartan penalty kill left something to be desired, MSU stayed out of the box in the third period, giving it a substantial advantage considering both teams’ proficiency with the extra man.
Sigalet, normally a one-man penalty kill, did not play his best game, but gave his team a chance to pull out a win heading into the third period. He finished the game with five goals allowed on 35 shots.
“Normally he doesn’t give those up,” said Slater. “You’ve gotta take them, but I still think he’s one of the best goalies if not the best goalie in the league.”
Bowling Green appeared to score a go-ahead goal early in the third, but the Spartans were able to prevent the puck from completely crossing the goal line while the referee could get a clear view through the scrum. The Falcons also hit the post a minute after Miller’s goal while looking for the all-important equalizer.
Although the Spartans pulled out the split, Paluch was happy with his team’s effort heading into its final regular season weekend and the playoffs.
“I’m really pleased with our team this weekend. We had really good focus on what we needed to do and how we needed to play, and for a good majority of the weekend we competed extremely hard and played well defensively,” said Paluch. “To get the home ice was a big goal of ours.”
Thanks to Lake Superior and Fairbanks losses, the Spartans could wrap up home ice with three points against last-place Notre Dame despite MSU’s first losing season in its long and storied history of CCHA play.
“We can’t take Notre Dame lightly,” said Slater. “We’ve gotta come out with the same intensity as if they were Michigan or Ohio State. They’ve already beaten us this year and I’m sure they’d be glad to play the spoiler.”
“We’ve had several games this year where you think we’re stepping over, but it’s a team I haven’t given up on. Sometimes it takes an emotional, critical win at the right time to get things going,” said Comley.