EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State fans might have gotten a glimpse of what the future holds on Friday, as the Spartans’ freshmen were dominant in a 4-0 shutout of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Freshmen forwards Tim Kennedy and Tim Crowder were joined by freshman goaltender Jeff Lerg as the three stars of the game in the Spartans’ second consecutive shutout of the Nanooks.
“We spoke very highly of this freshman class. They haven’t scored very highly at a national level if you compare national stats of freshman, but I’m not sure there is a better freshman group,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
“It’s awesome that we are starting off together, and hopefully it will carry on for the rest of the time we’re here,” said Crowder. “We’re good buddies. We have good chemistry both on and off the ice.
For Lerg, the victory marked his first collegiate shutout and first CCHA victory. Despite remaining relatively untested, Lerg faced several dicey situations including a UAF extra attacker down three goals with six minutes remaining in the game.
“I thought that was a good move by the coach,” said Lerg. “With five minutes left, you never know what can happen in a game. Anything can happen.”
The diminutive freshman was also forced to make superb back-to-back saves on the doorstep to preserve the shutout with just 40 seconds left in the game.
“You keep looking at the clock waiting for it to count down and they keep getting chances, but fortunately enough it worked out,” said Lerg. “I knew at one point or another I was going to have to make one or two big saves here and there, turning point saves.”
Lerg, having started three consecutive games with the incumbent Dominic Vicari sidelined with an eye infection, is making a statement. He is 3-0-0 in those games, posting a 0.67 goals-against average and stopping 73 of 75 shots for a .973 save percentage.
“I’m used to it,” said Lerg. “Last year I played 52 out of 60 games, and I think I play better when I get more minutes. I play with more confidence and I feel more comfortable.”
“I want competition in that position and the last two shutouts are by two different goalies,” said Comley, who would not give into any sort of brewing goaltender controversy.
The great play in net was complimented by a relentless offensive attack. Despite not capitalizing on several great chances, the Spartans registered an impressive four-goal effort.
Much of that energy came from the play of Kennedy and Crowder, who were joined by linemate and fellow freshman Justin Abdelkader. The line finished with two goals and three assists, giving the Spartans all the scoring help they would need in this contest.
“We work hard out there and we get good plays out of it. Hopefully the older guys will work hard because they see us working hard,” said Crowder.
Kennedy’s return to the lineup during the holiday season after missing two months with a broken hand has given his linemates, and the Spartans, great energy, skill, and creativity on offense.
“Kennedy is just going to be a special player when everything is said and done,” said Comley. “He is an outstanding player, who is so smart and such a good passer. He will score his share of goals, but other people will get opportunities [because of him].”
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and the Spartans proved that tonight. Their offensive attack, and transition game, pressured the Nanooks’ defensemen into mistakes breaking out of their own zone as well as preventing their forwards from gaining speed through the neutral zone.
“Our defense struggled tonight moving the puck. [MSU] played with a lot of speed and were able to get in on our defensemen,” said UAF coach Tavis MacMillan. “We made [costly] turnovers. One lead directly to a goal and the other to a penalty. That took away any momentum that we had in the game.”
MSU’s tempo and energy came as a bit of a surprise considering that UAF has a week layover in East Lansing. Many expected the Nanooks to come out hard, but their energy level was quickly met and surpassed by the Spartans.
“We had some guys play with energy, but unfortunately those are not the guys that are going to score goals consistently,” said MacMillan. “Our first line has one guy with one point and another with two. Guys who are counted on to score have to start producing. Right now we are offensively challenged, and playing from behind is very difficult for us.”
Even with the dominating win, repeating the effort will be the most challenging task for Michigan State as the Spartans aim to rise in the CCHA rankings.