EAST LANSING, Mich. — No. 5 Michigan State can finally pack its bags for Detroit.
The Spartans raced out to a 5-2 lead after two periods and never looked back, beating Alaska Fairbanks by a 7-4 score in a third, and final, CCHA quarterfinal game.
Captain Drew Miller tallied a hat track for MSU, which will face rival Michigan in the CCHA semifinals.
“I love playoff hockey; it’s the best time of the year,” said Miller. “You face elimination and you have to score points and win.”
And the Spartans did exactly that — just win.
Instead of getting tight, especially when Fairbanks scored in the first 1:10 of the game, they battled and played like a championship team.
“The confidence just comes from the team playing so well. You know that if you make a mistake that the guy behind you is going to step up and save you.
“Confidence in each other creates confidence in yourself,” said Miller.
After struggling to score goals all season long, the Spartans may be reversing the trend. In back-to-back wins against Fairbanks, MSU combined for 13 goals, a season-high.
“The last couple of nights we had good chances and the puck started to go in for us and it’s the perfect time of year for that to happen,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
To its credit, UAF refused to back down, scoring a power-play goal just 23 seconds into the third period to cut the lead to 5-3.
Coach Tavis MacMillan said of his team’s heart, “I said to them (before the game) that there’s two ways you can go here: you can give yourselves a chance and you can go after it or you can quit. I told them I was pretty sure I knew which one they were going to do.”
Unfortunately for UAF, that was as close as the Nanooks would get. Blame it on tired legs or MSU being too good, but UAF seemed to lose steam as the final period went along.
The Nanooks finished the season 18-16-5, MacMillan’s second winning campaign in as many chances.
“It’s a team that I really enjoyed coaching and I really liked how they came out in the third period,” said MacMillan.
MSU built its big lead on the strength of two goal-scoring flurries. After surrendering a UAF goal, the Spartans scored three of their own in 1:31 to claim the lead. All three goals came just 1:40 apart.
Miller turned the tide in the first with a shorthanded score. Steve Vanoosten lost his footing at the blue line, giving Chris Mueller the puck and a clear line down the left boards. Miller recognized the break and took off down the center of the ice. Mueller waited until the absolute last second before sliding a pass over to his captain, who uncorked a rocket of a one-timer through Wylie Rogers and into the net.
“I really like that we fought back after the first goal and we seemed to be able to come up with goals when we needed them,” said Comley.
After a relatively quiet end to the first, the Spartans rallied for another bunch in the second period. Two MSU goals 53 seconds apart sandwiched another Nanooks’ goal, making the score 4-2 just five minutes into the middle frame.
Rogers made 38 saves in the loss, bringing his series total to 96. Lerg allowed four goals, but made the saves that he needed to, finishing with 23 stops on the night.
The Spartans and Wolverines will face off in the second game on Friday, an 8 p.m. start on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Sometimes you go into the playoffs worrying about winning a certain number of games or getting a lot of help from other teams (to get into the NCAA tournament), but this team just has to play its game and it’s got a chance to win,” said Comley.