EAST LANSING, Mich. — History repeated itself at Munn Arena as No. 10 Michigan State rebounded from an early deficit and scored three unanswered goals to claim a 3-1 win over No. 2 Miami on Saturday.
The victory marked the first time the RedHawks had been swept all season, ending a streak that extended all the way back to a first-round CCHA playoff series with the Spartans at Munn Arena last season.
“We feel good about it. I’m still not sure it was the same Miami team that won the (regular season) championship, but I do know that we are as good as they are, and they are a very good team,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “Two great wins against a nationally-ranked team helps us very much nationally and just puts us a step closer it kind of validates things. This team is earning its respect, and that is very encouraging.”
While sweeps are nice, the Spartans’ focus was earning points in an extremely tight CCHA race. Saturday’s victory guaranteed MSU a first-round bye in the playoffs and home ice in the second round. Under this year’s new CCHA format, the top four regular-season finishers earn a bye and the right to host first-round victors in the next round.
“When you reach goals that you have set, you should be proud but not satisfied. There’s a difference between being satisfied and being proud,” said Comley. “Now that we wrapped up home ice, we want to finish second. Home ice was a preseason goal, so we’ve accomplished that, but now we have a chance to finish second, and that’s what we want to do.”
After scoring two goals late in the game Friday, Miami carried its strong play over into the first period of Saturday’s game, overcoming an emotional Senior Night ceremony to take a 1-0 lead just over four minutes into play.
“I thought we started the game off well. We just made a couple of mental errors, and Michigan State took care of them,” said Miami coach Rico Blasi. “We knew coming in that they were one of the top teams in the country. On their home ice, they took it to us all weekend.”
Those mental mistakes came in the form of penalties on Raymond Eichenlaub and Matt Christie that resulted in a first period five-on-three power play for the Spartans. During the two-man advantage, junior defenseman Chris Snavely pounced all over a loose puck in the high slot and fired a slap shot past netminder Jeff Zatkoff to tie the game at one and rob Miami of its hard-fought momentum.
“It was definitely a turning point,” said Blasi. “The old saying is if you score on a five-on-three you usually win, and Michigan State was the one that scored the goal and won the game.”
Following the Snavely tally, MSU returned to dominant form, shutting down the RedHawks and building an eventual two-goal lead.
It was the Tyler Howells show in the second period. After spending the first few seconds of the frame lying injured on the ice, Howells rebounded to score the game-winning goal and assist on an insurance marker.
Howells said, “I got hit into the boards and I saw some lights and had a headache there for a while, but it (must have) helped me to think out there on the ice because after that things went pretty well.”
Howells, Chris Mueller, and Colton Fretter executed a low, grinding cycle along the boards to perfection that resulted in the two-way defenseman’s 10th goal of the season. Just 1:34 later and with 13.9 seconds remaining in period, Howells snuck down the left boards skating four-on-four and slipped a beautiful cross-ice pass to Drew Miller for an easy tap-in on the right post.
“The play that Tyler Howells made at the end of the second period was just major,” said Comley.
Jeff Lerg continues to be much of the reason for the Spartans’ resurgence in the second half. The freshman netminder stopped 38 of 41 shots this weekend, improving his record to 11-4-5 with a 1.99 goals against average and .927 save percentage.
“Obviously he is playing very well. It’s a tough situation (for Dominic Vicari), but when one guy gets hot you ride him, and Jeff gets great credit for doing it,” said Comley.
Lerg and the Spartans will be tested next week as they travel to Lake Superior on Thursday before facing off with the Lakers again on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena. Miami will close out the regular season with a home-and-home against Bowling Green.
Before the game, Michigan State paid homage to five seniors: Chad Hontvet, David Booth, and assistant captains Jared Nightingale, Colton Fretter, and Corey Potter. Hontvet, a role player, notched his first goal, two-goal game, and game-winning goal in the same game (a playoff matchup with Miami on 3/11/05). Booth and Potter, two key Spartans, both won gold with the U.S. Junior team in 2004. Fretter emerged as a scoring threat last season for the Spartans, registering a career-best 20-24-44 line. Nightingale, whose brother Adam was also a Spartan, has been a strong leader and a solid defenseman over his tenure.