EAST LANSING, Mich. — For the second-seeded and fifth-ranked Spartans, it was the first true must-win game of the season. With its back against the wall, MSU responded with a season-high six goals in a 6-1 rout of Alaska Fairbanks.
“You never know how you are going to respond but we just seemed a lot sharper tonight from the moment we walked into this building. The rust was gone and we were ready to play,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
From the first faceoff, there was a noticeable sense of urgency from the Spartans, but it was not the type of nervous energy that causes some teams to tense up and play timid hockey.
“We played the way that we know we are capable of playing. Every line was going, our defense was making passes and good plays in our zone. Everything was flowing,” said captain Drew Miller.
“Last night was they were like the bully in the fight and punched us in the face and woke us up. We were much better tonight and we got better as the game went along,” said MSU goaltender Jeff Lerg.
If Friday night’s game was penalty-filled, this one took the term to new heights. Despite stressing discipline and smarts after game one’s thin escape, coach Tavis MacMillan’s Nanooks seemed to lose the message. The frustration set in during that second frame and the penalties, and resulting Spartan power-play goals, just kept coming.
“I thought it was a really good game for a period. Both teams were playing hard and playing well; there was a physical presence on the ice — and then that was taken away in the second period,” said MacMillan. “We certainly got frustrated, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
Said Comley, “There’s no love lost. I just hope it’s a hockey game tomorrow, not what we saw tonight. I don’t know physical this game got.
“It was just stupid. It was just undisciplined.”
MSU exploded for four goals in the middle period before notching one more early in the third for good measure.
The first goal of the second period was scored by Chris Mueller at 11:29, even strength, and the second was by Miller, skating four-on-four less than a minute later.
Those goals were followed by three five-on-three tallies, as MSU set a CCHA playoff record for the fastest three-goal span with a trio of scores just 1:46 apart. Tim Crowder and Bryan Lerg notched the first two to end the middle frame, and Chris Lawrence rounded out the burst 57 seconds into the third period to give the Spartans a 6-0 lead.
Seven minutes later, UAF’s Kyle Jones capped the scoring with a five-on-three goal of the Nanooks’ own.
Early on, the Spartans grabbed the initial lead on the strength of a Jim McKenzie power-play goal on their first full attempt of the game. After going 1-of-11 on the man advantage Friday, proficiency on the power play was a key, and MSU was able to cash in four times.
McKenzie’s goal to open the scoring was a perfect example of how the Spartans played with focus and determination but without fear or frustration.
Miller drove the goal line and shoved the puck on net. McKenzie made an initial attempt to swat at the loose rebound but had his stick tied up from behind. Bryan Lerg finally came in and shot the puck, and McKenzie, still working hard and driving the net, backhanded a second rebound into the net out of midair.
Washing away a mess of a second period, the result is simple: the Nanooks and the Spartans will play a deciding game on Sunday and the winner will advance to the CCHA championship tournament.
“In the grand scheme of things, if someone told me that we would get a one-game shot at Munn Ice Arena, I’d take it,” said MacMillan.
Said Lerg, “I would take a one-game series against anyone in the league. I’m confident in our team and that’s the way you want it to be. Hopefully the pucks will go our way again tomorrow.”
The two teams will meet for that third and final game Sunday at 7 p.m.