EAST LANSING, Mich. — Refuse to allow speed through the neutral zone. Keep the shots to the outside and limit quality chances. Play strong in net. Win the battle on special teams.
These could have easily been the bullet points found on Ron Mason’s blackboard before the start of a Michigan-Michigan State game 20 years ago.
Tuesday, Rick Comley’s Spartans executed this age-old game plan to perfection, dominating Michigan in a 2-0 shutout victory before a near-capacity Munn Arena.
“I don’t think there is any upset here tonight,” said Comley. “We played really well and we played well enough to win down there [a 3-3 tie in October at Yost]. These two teams are about as level as you can get.”
Michigan State’s strong defensive game plan helped to neutralize the Wolverines’ great speed and skill by bottling up the neutral zone and pressuring the defensemen on the breakout.
“We’ve established a style of play. We aren’t a laid-back team, but we play solid defense. If you call it a trap, I guess we do that, but we do pursue the puck in the offensive zone.”
When and if Michigan did find a way through Comley’s neutral-zone system, MSU’s defense, led by Corey Potter and Jared Nightingale, limited those quality chances.
“We had isolated chances, but we did not generate enough [offense]. We never really got any real sustained attack. We got a few chances, but they were isolated and not enough,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
“I didn’t have to make too many real big saves,” said MSU goaltender Jeff Lerg. “Our team really did a good job of keeping them away from me and keeping the shots to the outside. We didn’t give them any great opportunities, so I didn’t have to stand on my head. The defense is letting me see the puck, make the first save, and control the rebound.”
Lerg stopped all 31 shots that he faced in his second shutout in his last three games. The freshman has now started five consecutive games, recording an astounding 0.60 goals against average and .975 save percentage.
Prior to this game, Comley was confident that the Spartans could stay with Michigan five-on-five, but MSU ended up winning the game on two special-teams goals.
The first score, a power-play goal by Colton Fretter, came late in the first frame on a five-on-three advantage.
“We had two penalties called by two different officials on the same shift,” said Berenson. “A five-on-three in this building is huge. We nearly got through it. We got through a minute and twenty seconds before they scored.”
Drew Miller controlled the puck at the goal line and flung a blind centering pass that was deflected by goaltender Noah Ruden. Ruden’s tip, however, came right to Fretter, who knifed the puck up over the goalie’s shoulder and into the net.
With the Spartans clinging to a 1-0 lead at the midpoint of the game, Bryan Lerg provided the rest of the damage with a short-handed marker.
“I was struggling on draws against [Andrew] Ebbett, so I had [David] Booth take the draw,” said Lerg. “I just took off and I don’t know if [Nightingale] even saw me. He flipped it and I gloved it down; I saw the goalie come out, so I knew what I was going to do.”
His move was both decisive and pretty. Lerg faked the shot, getting Ruden to bite, slid the puck to his backhand and flipped it into the near-empty net for the final 2-0 score.
While Berenson gave credit to the Spartans for their execution, he seemed focused on his team’s energy, or lack thereof.
“There were too many turnovers, too many mistakes, and too many penalties. We were not good enough to win this game the way we played tonight start to finish.”
He could not fault Ruden for the senior’s game in net, turning away 35 shots and denying an even-strength goal.
“I thought Noah Ruden played a great game,” said Berenson. “He came in here and gave us a chance and we didn’t take advantage of it. You hate to waste a game like that from your goalie.”
Most expected Michigan to threaten late, but the Wolverines’ efforts were short-circuited by two late penalties by freshmen. One of those was a five-minute major and game disqualification earned by Jack Johnson for a vicious hit on Tyler Howells.
“That’s disappointing,” said Berenson. “There has to be a certain amount of gamesmanship or self-control. He is too important of a player to take a penalty like that. When you take a lot of penalties, you are going to get a reputation, so you need to have even more gamesmanship.”
Comley quickly quieted any rumors that there would be revenge from his players. “There won’t be any after effect, but obviously it was a cheap hit. He came off the bench, across the ice, and just tried to kill him.”
Johnson’s hit aside, the Spartans struck first blood, improving to 1-0-1 against their bitter rival. The teams will face other opponents this weekend before finishing the series on January 27-28.