DETROIT — Apparently, no one at Alaska-Fairbanks got the memo that this was a consolation game. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Nanooks came out and battled for third place like they were fighting for the Mason Cup, beating sluggish Michigan State, 3-2, Saturday afternoon.
“That’s the hardest game I’ve ever had to prepare for as a player or a coach,” said UAF coach Tavis MacMillan. “It’s a very difficult game to get up for, and I’ve got to give the kids a lot of credit. They did a great job, and a lot of that credit goes to the seniors.
“Very few student-athletes get to finish their careers or seasons with a win, and this is the first time these guys will be able to do it. It’s a big win over a great program.”
Freshman Wylie Rogers continued to play like a grizzled veteran in net for the Nanooks this weekend. Just 24 hours after recording a 40-save effort in a tough loss to Michigan, the freshman claimed the first star of the bronze-medal game, stopping 37 of 39 shots against Michigan State to finish with a three-game save total of 104 on 112 shots.
“We just couldn’t get the puck in the net at critical times, and that’s been something that haunted us all year,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “When we ran into goalies that were really sharp, we struggled this year.”
The Spartans struggled especially on the man advantage. Credit the Nanooks for another impressive effort on the penalty kill. They finished the weekend denying 20 of 23 power plays for their opponents.
“Being the last game of the season, everybody is able to put it all on the line,” said Nanook penalty killer Corbin Schmidt. “Literally, we had nothing to save it for, so we were blocking shots; some guys had four or five blocks in one kill, and that’s what it takes.”
Schmidt, a former walk-on, may be the best story this season for the Nanooks, in a season full of good stories for the folks in Fairbanks.
“When we look back on the season, I look at someone like Schmidt who came as a walk-on forward, and emerged as our best defenseman this year to the point that he was getting notice and recognition from professional hockey,” said MacMillan.
Still, the future may be the best thing that comes out of Fairbanks’ experience in Super Six. With one of the youngest teams in the country — 14 suited for the game were freshmen and sophomores — the Nanooks may be making reservations in Detroit for the next few years to come.
“Four years has come and gone and this is the best team that UAF has ever had,” said senior Jared Sylvestre. “We’ve got a lot of youth so I think I can say that it’s a sign of things to come. I’m glad to be one of the guys leaving it in the state that it’s in right now, and I’m proud of the young guys we brought in and their work ethic.”
As often is the case with successful young players, the Nanooks came into this season expecting to win, and their youthful exuberance has helped them to forget that they weren’t supposed to be here.
Said MacMillan, “They’re oblivious to it. I think there’s a fine line between being oblivious to it and being overwhelmed by it. The older guys have brought them back down to being closer to oblivious than being overwhelmed.”
Conversely, Michigan State was forced to say goodbye to one of its best players ever, captain and All-American Jim Slater. The senior finished with 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points, the first Spartan since Mike York to record three consecutive 40-point seasons. Rick Comley, one of college hockey’s all-time winningest coaches, paid his captain the ultimate compliment.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a better player. I can’t imagine being any better than he was for four years and what he’s meant to the program … I owe a great deal of gratitude to him for helping me to make the adjustment to this program.”
“I don’t think it hit me until I got to the locker room,” said Slater. “It’s tough to take the jersey off for the last time, but the good thing about Michigan State is that you’re a Spartan for life. I just want to thank everyone for all that they’ve done for me in my time here.”
UAF claimed the lead as the first period wound down and refused to relinquish it. With MSU controlling the play on its second consecutive man advantages, Jason Grinevitch intercepted a pass up top and sped away on a two-on-one with Sylvestre. The Spartans’ Ethan Graham dove to take away the passing lane, forcing Grinevitch to fumble the puck, but fortunately for the Nanooks it floated right onto Sylvestre’s stick for the easy tap-in and a 1-0 lead.
“He never passes on a two-on-one,” Sylvestre said jokingly. “He threw a big toe drag out there, and the only reason the puck came to me was because he tripped and fell.”
Fairbanks added to its lead just over a minute into the second period. Six seconds into a power play, the Nanooks’ Nathan Fornataro redirected a Schmidt shot from the point past MSU netminder Dominic Vicari and into the net.
The Spartans’ Tommy Goebel stopped the bleeding with a quick answer at the 2:15 mark. The speedy sophomore went in on Rogers untouched and knocked in his own rebound to cut the lead in half, but that was the closest the Spartans would get.
Fairbanks reclaimed its two-goal lead before the end of the second when Lucas Burnett jumped all over an MSU turnover behind its own net and slipped a beautiful pass out front to Aaron Lee for an easy put away and a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes of play. MSU added a late goal in the third period, and had a few chances on the power play, but could not find the equalizer.
Alaska-Fairbanks finishes the season 17-16-4 (11-14-3 CCHA), while Michigan State compiled a 20-17-4 (12-13-3 CCHA) record.