EAST LANSING, Mich. — Alaska Fairbanks kept the string of upsets coming on Friday, besting fifth-ranked Michigan State, 2-1, at Munn Arena.
The Nanooks scored early and somehow escaped victorious despite allowing 11 power-play opportunities to the Spartans.
Nobody can kill 11 penalties,” said UAF coach Tavis MacMillan. “If we are going to take penalties, let’s take penalties that count, not tripping and hooking and interference. We can’t give them this many power plays tomorrow. They’ll kill us.”
Maybe nobody can kill 11 penalties, but UAF stopped the 10 that it needed to win.
“Our penalty kill has been tremendous lately and I think they got away with one tonight otherwise we’d still be on that streak,” said UAF goaltender Wylie Rogers.
Unlike most teams, the Nanooks are fairly comfortable on the penalty kill. Coming into the series, they had stopped 36 consecutive opportunities and extended that streak to 44 before allowing the lone goal surrendered on the power play. Such a strong penalty kill allows UAF to play a rough-and-tumble style game without any fear of negative consequences.
MSU coach Rick Comley said, “It was to their advantage to play in a penalty-filled game. The longer than we could play five-on-five the more our depth and speed would have helped. They are very good on the penalty kill and obviously we need to get more going on the power play.”
It was critical for the Spartans to come out and shake off the rust of a first-round bye and a week off, but all the special teams play prevented MSU from finding any rhythm until a late gasp.
“We have to play to our speed, play the style that works best. And we need to capitalize,” said MSU captain Drew Miller. “That flow and style was not there tonight. We couldn’t find our rhythm or the back of the net.”
The Spartans had a golden opportunity to tie the game on the man advantage with just 3:01 remaining. MSU maintained puck possession for long periods of time, but could not find the shooting or passing lanes to make something happen.
“They like to get down low on the goal line and run a cycle with their big bodies. We knew exactly what they wanted to do. They are huge, so we had to defend well and compete,” said MacMillan. “I thought Wylie stood his ground really well. He didn’t get pushed around on the goal line.”
Rogers made 36 saves including 14 on the penalty kill to improve his playoff record to 7-1 with all of those games coming on the road.
“He just continues to do what he keeps doing,” said MacMillan. “He likes to play in this type of environment, in the playoffs.
Trevor Hyatt, known for his high-energy and bone-crushing hits, notched the first goal of the game. Lucas Burnett muscled the puck away from a MSU defender behind the net, and fed out front to Hyatt who slid the puck under Jeff Lerg’s pads and into the net.
“He wasn’t in our lineup for the longest time. He’s just a kid who competes and works hard. Had he not scored a goal tonight, he still would have been one of our best players,” said MacMillan.
Aaron Lee doubled the lead just 1:57 into the second period, shedding a defender and wiring a shot over Lerg’s glove and into the top right corner.
The Nanooks were hardly the beneficiaries of puck luck. They went out, battled, and won this game with physical play and intensity.
“They played their style of play very well. They clogged the middle of the ice, blocked shots, and played tough,” said Miller. “We just didn’t play our game.”
To his credit, Lerg kept the Spartans in the game despite a lack-luster offensive output. With the Spartans still chasing a goal, he made a game-saving stop on a Kyle Greentree breakaway.
Behind Lerg, MSU fought to the bitter end, pulling the goaltender with 1:00 left and controlling play in the Nanook zone, but UAF was able to win the critical face off and kill the clock.
With the victory, the battle-tested Nanooks proved once again why they are a scary team for highly-rated opponents. UAF can now add this win to an impressive resume that includes victories over top-ranked Minnesota, Miami, and Michigan.
The loss leaves an unfamiliar taste in the Spartans’ mouths. They have not dropped a decision since January 24th, a very similar 2-1 loss to Ferris State. Tonight’s game also marked the first MSU home playoff loss in 20 games dating back to 5-3 loss on March 9, 1996.
Fortunately for Michigan State, the Nanooks will have to repeat tonight’s performance to walk away with the best-of-three series and a trip to Detroit for the CCHA Semifinals.
“There is no doubt they will be better tomorrow and we will need to play a lot smarter than we did tonight,” said MacMillan.
“Give us another 11 chances tomorrow and I’ll take our chances,” said Comley.