ITHACA, N.Y. — It had been a school-record 24 games since the typically suffocating defense of the Cornell Big Red had allowed three goals or more in a game. Saturday night at Lynah Rink, No. 10 Michigan State managed to beat goaltender David McKee four times in the second period alone en route to a 4-3 win and a split in its emotional weekend series with No. 2 Cornell.
The Michigan State defense, backed by freshman goaltender Jeff Lerg’s first career victory, withstood a relentless third period charge by Cornell, which outshot the Spartans 13-1 in the final frame and, on several occasions, came within a hair of tying the game.
“I wanted to play the young kid in goal,” said Michigan State head coach Rick Comley. “I think he’s got a good future. He didn’t get too much work until the end. For two periods, it was kind of an easy night for him, but you know, he doesn’t get rattled. A lot of back and forth tonight, and a lot of freshmen can’t deal with that. He had a couple big saves [in the third].”
“Hard-fought game,” added Cornell head coach Mike Schafer. “We let it get away from us in the second period, and they capitalized on their chances. The things that are typically really strong for our hockey team, the special teams, the penalty kill, and goaltending we didn’t get the job done in those areas.”
After struggling on special teams for most of the season, the Spartans finally began converting their opportunities in the second period, scoring twice on the man advantage and once while shorthanded.
“We’ve struggled on the power play,” said Comley, “and that was one area that we definitely did make some changes strategy-wise because [Cornell] blocks shots so well.”
Trailing 1-0 thanks to a first period power-play tally by Cornell senior captain Matt Moulson, Michigan State tied the score at 1-1 when freshman center Tim Crowder, a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, flew down the boards on the left side, drove the net, and snuck the puck between McKee’s left pad and the post.
And then, the flood gates opened.
The Spartans took the lead just over a minute later. With the Big Red on the power play, the puck was mishandled at the blue line, allowing junior winger Tyler Howells to fly down the ice on a clean breakaway. He fired the puck over McKee’s blocker to give the Spartans their first lead of the weekend. Howells scored again later in the period, this time during a power play, gathering the puck out of a scrum in front of the Cornell net and firing it past a well-screened McKee.
“[Goals] are hard pressed when you’re going up against Dave McKee,” said Howells. “He’s a great goalie, and when you get opportunities with breakaways and what not, you have to capitalize on them. I know last year we didn’t have a shorthanded goal, and this year, I think we have two now. When you get a shorthanded goal, it just kills the other team’s confidence when they’re on the power play.”
With less than 30 seconds left in the period, the Spartans struck again. Sophomore Bryan Lerg fed the puck to linemate Brandon Warner, whose wrist shot from the top of the circle found the back of the net for the eventual game-winner.
“It was all my linemates too,” said a humble Lerg, who now has 7 assists already this season and has developed into a legitimate playmaker for the Spartans. “I didn’t do it myself. Last night, we maybe didn’t know what we were going up against, with the building going crazy. Maybe we got a little startled last night, but tonight we came out and didn’t give up the entire game.”
But neither did the Big Red.
Trailing 4-1 entering the third period, Cornell cut away at the Michigan State lead thanks to a one-timer from in between the hash marks by Chris Abbott and a well-placed tip by Raymond Sawada. The valiant effort by the Big Red was characterized by strong physical play and scoring chance after scoring chance.
“They’re big, strong, and they run 100mph to hit you,” said Comley.
However, despite Cornell (1-1-0) dominating the play in the third, Michigan State held on for a hard-fought 4-3 win, concluding a weekend series that was intensely physical for the players and electrifying for the fans in attendance.
“The second period, I thought we let it up, and they came on,” said Schafer. “They took full advantage. Their players sensed it and went for it. The valiant effort in the third is inconsequential because the valiant effort should have come after we scored the first goal.”
“We didn’t play well in the second period, and it killed us,” added Moulson, who scored three goals during the weekend. “You’re not going to win against a team like that playing only two periods.”
Next weekend, Cornell will look to rebound as it goes on the road to face Yale and Brown in their first ECACHL games of the season. Meanwhile, Michigan State, after going 1-1-1 on the road against the top two teams in the country at Michigan and Cornell, will play its first home games of the season, a pair of CCHA contests against Northern Michigan.