DETROIT — The Spartans capitalized on their first two power-play opportunities in this Super Six quarterfinal game to jump out to an early lead before rolling to a 5-0 victory over the No. 4 seed Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha.
Michigan State, the No. 5 seed in the Super Six field, saw five different Spartans score on the night, but the underlying theme to the offense was the line of Jim Slater, Drew Miller, and Tommy Goebel.
“I thought we played very well from start to finish,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley. “To get that early goal, the power play-goal … I thought that put their young team back on their heals. I thought they looked young tonight and I thought our big players stepped up for us. They were very, very solid.
“The guys who have been playing well over the last three or four weeks continued to play well.”
Goebel may have been the only one on that Spartan first line to register a goal, but Slater and Miller each had three assists, combining to set up the first two power-play tallies, scored by Colton Fretter and Jim McKenzie.
Goebel had two assists in addition to his goal, Corey Potter had two helpers, and Daniel Vukovic and Chris Mueller each had a goal. Vukovic, who scored his first collegiate goal tonight, was A.J. Thelen’s replacement in the lineup; Mueller hit the empty net at 18:42.
“Our hats are off to Michigan State,” said UNO head coach Mike Kemp. “They … took control of the game early on, I thought they asserted themselves very, very well, took advantage of every opportunity that we gave them, and obviously they were the better team tonight.”
Fretter’s goal at 3:28 from Miller and Slater gave MSU a 1-0 lead. From the top of the slot, Slater passed to Miller at the red line, and Miller fired it across to Fretter, whose one-timer beat UNO netminder Chris Holt long.
“Over the last three or four weeks, obviously that’s a play that we practice all the time and it worked to perfection,” said Comley. “Colton doesn’t miss when he gets that shot in the slot.”
At 10:31, McKenzie made it 2-0 after one from Slater and Miller. Slater took the puck to the net and fired point-blank, and the rebound went directly to McKenzie, who finished the play while crashing the net.
Goebel made it 3-0 in the second, MSU’s first even-strength goal, scored four-on-four. Slater set up the play by faking a wraparound and bouncing the puck off the end board out to Goebel, who tipped it past Holt at 6:17.
At 11:12, Vukovic was at the right placed at the right time for his tally, at the top of the left circle on a delayed penalty. Miller was pulled down from behind while streaking up the left wing and the puck squibbed to Vukovic, who launched it long past Holt for the 4-0 lead.
Although Kemp said he didn’t want to use UNO’s youth — 17 freshmen and sophomores — as an excuse “because we really play on the same ice sheet,” he admitted that MSU’s experience was an advantage.
“I thought that their experienced players … stepped up and really did a job. They’re familiar with this facility, familiar with this rink, and they made us look that way in many cases.
“I thought we were excited to play, I thought we were really enthused to play. I think those first two power-play goals in the first period took a little of the sting out of us. I thought up until that point in time we were stacking pretty well with them.”
Comley said that beyond the differences in relative levels of experience, the game boiled down to one goal — the one that UNO just couldn’t get.
“You can’t measure the value of that first goal in today’s game. It’s just unbelievable what it does to a team when you finally break the ice, and they couldn’t get it broke tonight.”
Even though the Spartans outshot the Mavericks 42-33 and limited the number of quality UNO shots, when the Mavericks penetrated the MSU defense and fired, Spartan sophomore Dominic Vicari was up to the task.
“I’ve said before, when we’ve been on this run, we’ve played as good as Dom plays,” said Slater. “Again, he played very good tonight, and we followed him. He made some big saves when he had to to keep us in the game, or else it would have been a lot closer. He did his job, and we did our job, and we came out with a good win.”
Vicari blocked all 33 shots in his fifth shutout of the season, 12th of his career. For UNO, Holt made 37 saves. MSU was 2-for-7 on the power play.
The Mavericks finish their season with a record of 19-16-4 just one year after anchoring the CCHA league standings.
The Spartans (20-15-4) will face No. 2 seed Ohio State (26-9-4) at 8:05 at Joe Louis Arena in semifinal action. MSU and OSU split a series in East Lansing Feb. 18-19.
“We knew coming in knowing it was going to take three wins to do it,” said Comley. “We got some aches and pains here tonight. There was an impact from that game. We’ll have to see how everybody is tomorrow. Obviously, tomorrow’s game is going to be a much more difficult hockey game.”