EAST LANSING, Mich. — Justin Abdelkader’s power-play goal at 15:56 of the second period stood up as the game-winner in Michigan State’s 2-1 win over Alaska Fairbanks Saturday night.
The game featured a full-out playoff atmosphere complete with a review and a goal being overturned, tough defense, terrific goaltending, and a post-game brawl.
The Nanooks threatened several times late, including Lucas Fraser’s point-blank chance to knot the game, but could not find the equalizer.
“Of all the teams that we’ve played so far this year, the team we played against this weekend is the best team,” said UAF coach Tavis MacMillan. “We could not answer their speed and aggressiveness. We did what we could, and we had some opportunities in the third but it just didn’t materialize.”
That seemed to be the story for UAF this weekend, as the Nanooks had several quality scoring chances but just could not seem to get the puck past Jeff Lerg and into the net.
“We are a blue collar team. We are not a highly-skilled offensive team, and we’ve got to get there,” said MacMillan.
Down one goal with less than four minutes left to play, UAF gained the man advantage when Abdelkader was whistled for a high-sticking penalty. However, the Nanooks only enjoyed a 41-second opportunity after Tyler Eckford was sent to the box for a hook.
Defense was much of the reason the Spartans were able to walk away with a one-goal victory. MSU limited UAF to just 14 shots on goal, and through 10 minutes of the third period the Nanooks only registered one shot.
“They created havoc on their forecheck, and when we did get the puck, they clogged up the neutral zone really well. They were physical. They pushed us to the outside and I think we only had two attempted shots from the quality scoring area through two periods,” said MacMillan.
“I though Corey Potter played like an All-American this weekend,” added MacMillan. “He was dominant. He really gave our forwards fits and the rest of the defense fed off of him.”
The other reason for the Michigan State victory was goaltending. Lerg played solid in net despite limited action, and was one fluke bounce away from a second consecutive shutout. The lone goal surrendered was a carom off of a defenseman.
“We’ve got tremendous competition in goal, and whether they like it or not, it is a good thing,” said Comley.
While he was relatively untested, Lerg was forced to make a game-saver late in the third.
“Jeff made an unbelievable save,” said Comley. “It was as good as you will see all year. It was point blank and it was a great save.”
Wylie Rogers was solid in net against the Spartans once again. While MSU was able to get its first win against the sophomore and Fairbanks native, he deserved his fourth consecutive victory against the Green and White, stopping 28 of 30 shots in a hard-luck loss.
Shortly after the final buzzer sounded, MSU sophomore center Chris Mueller was pushed into the Fairbanks bench and a brawl ensued: a 20-on-one brawl.
“Could he have left sooner? I don’t know,” said Comley. “I saw him get pulled into the bench, and they initiated the whole thing. Who they lose is irrelevant.”
The Spartans on the ice came to Mueller’s rescue, but he was the only player for MSU to be whistled for a fighting penalty and the corresponding game disqualification. Oddly enough, only one Nanook received a disqualification as well.
Mueller’s suspension looms large, especially considering bitter rival Michigan is the Spartans’ next opponent.
“When you are going into the Michigan game and you lose one of your top centers, that is tough,” said Comley.
Michigan State is one of three CCHA schools experimenting with using video replay. Tonight, it cost the Spartans a goal that would have provided some much needed breathing room in such a tight game.
Shortly after Abdelkader’s goal, his line created what it thought would be a second goal to make it 3-1. Tim Crowder crashed the net off an initial shot and the puck squirted free to Tim Kennedy who slid the puck into the net as Crowder collided with goaltender Wylie Rogers.
Referee Mark Wilkins initially ruled a goal as Crowder was helped into the net, but later overturned the goal when “indisputable video evidence” showed that Crowder may not have avoided the goaltender. Since current CCHA rules do not permit penalties to be called on goal reviews even if a non-goal was the result of a penalty, Crowder was not sent to the box.
All of the factors added up to one heck of a hockey game, a Spartan sweep, and a 3-0-1 season series in favor of MSU between the two teams.
Michigan State will face off against Michigan on Tuesday (Jan. 17) at 7:30 at Munn Arena. Fairbanks will return home to host Ohio State next weekend.