DETROIT — Heading into the final frame, Michigan State clung to a tenuous 2-1 lead over rival Michigan, and with nine of the 12 previous contests between the two having been decided by one goal or less and five of the last seven ending in a draw, it seemed as if this game was destined to come down to the wire.
But Spartans Bryan Lerg — son of Michigan hockey Hall of Famer Dan Lerg — and freshman Tim Crowder scored late goals to propel MSU to a 4-1 victory before 10,478 at Joe Louis Arena.
“We’re playing so well as a team, and that’s how you win championships,” said Lerg.
“I felt we were going to score. As long as we didn’t fall back into a shell I thought we’d be okay. With the way we’ve played these guys in the past, I thought this game could have easily gone to overtime, but I was confident that we would score even if they tied the game,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
Crowder’s power-play conversion on a late Jack Johnson frustration penalty gave the Spartans a three-goal margin of victory that marked the largest for either team in 15 contests.
Prior to the backbreaking Lerg tally, Michigan was buzzing in search of an equalizer that seemed just out of reach all night long.
“It looked like we were a little nervous out there,” said Michigan captain Andrew Ebbett. “We were working hard in that third period but we didn’t have that desperation. I thought we had it back in the second period [but] those two posts take a lot out of your team. We kept going. We had our chances. I think if we had a little bit more desperation right from the start we would have been a little bit better off.”
“[W]e couldn’t capitalize on our chances,” said Wolverines head coach Red Berenson. “We had good chances … in the third period and didn’t capitalize on them. Give [Jeff] Lerg credit, and it was just one of those things — pucks knocked out of the air, posts, crossbar. Disappointing.”
Brandon Kaleniecki, who has killed the Spartans this year, had the Wolverines’ best chance to the tie the game on the tip of his stick, but the alternate captain rang his shot off of the right post.
Much of Michigan’s inability to score could be attributed to the play of Jeff Lerg. The CCHA Rookie of the Year stopped 25 of 26 shots, including a game-saver on a two-on-one.
“It was Travis Turnbull chipping it to Tim Miller. I got my head turned really quick. It hit low on the tip of my pad and floated in the air over the side of the net,” said Lerg.
Not to be outdone, senior Noah Ruden gave Michigan one of the best performances of his career in net. Although the score may not indicate how strongly Ruden played, he gave the Wolverines a fighting chance to tie the game until the final minutes of the third period.
“Coach always says [that] the goalie’s job is to give this team a chance to win, but the bottom line is you have to win,” said Ruden. “It might look good if you’re here because I kept the team in, but we didn’t win get the win so I can’t be proud of my efforts because we didn’t win. That’s the bottom line.”
Ebbett gave Michigan the early lead. Chad Kolarik picked up the puck behind the left side net and somehow threaded a pass through a maze of bodies in front. Ebbett received the puck at the bottom of the right circle and beat Jeff Lerg low to the near side.
Coming into Friday, the Wolverines were 14-3-2 when scoring the first goal, but choppy Michigan play in the first period and a hungry MSU squad that was able score four answered goals en route to the victory stymied Michigan’s bid to defend the Mason Cup.
“Usually when we get our first goal it’s a huge boost for us, but that was definitely one of the worst first periods of the year,” said Ebbett.
Just 1:20 after Michigan grabbed the early lead, Crowder drew the Spartans even on the power play. Tape-to-tape passes by Corey Potter and David Booth set up Crowder on the doorstep for the easy putaway.
As the first period came to a close, fourth-liner Zak McClellan gave MSU its first lead of the night with an opportunistic goal. Ruden was slow covering up a rebound of an Ethan Graham shot and McClellan sped in and slid the puck under the sprawling goaltender for the eventual game-winner.
A thrilled McClellan said, “It’s a great feeling, you know? I’m on the fourth line, just try to go out there and make some opportunities, but mainly just give the guys on the first three lines a good flow and let them be able to rest, so it’s always great, especially in a game like this, when we have a chance to be able to contribute.”
He nearly got a second as he fumbled a puck on net that bounced over Ruden’s paddle, but a Wolverine defender doubled back to make the save just before the puck trickled over the goal line.
Both teams exchanged power plays in the middle stanza, but neither could muster a goal.
With the loss, Michigan may be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 seasons. Berenson believes that a victory Saturday will be critical in determining whether or not Michigan makes the field of 16.
“The only thing I can say is that we have to have a good game tomorrow and then when the smoke clears on Sunday we’ll see what our situation is. If we don’t, I don’t know that we deserve anything. We have to focus on tomorrow’s game,” said Berenson.
Michigan will meet Northern Michigan tomorrow in the third place game at 3:35 p.m., while the top two seeds, Miami and Michigan State, will battle for the Mason Cup. The puck drops at 7:05 Saturday evening.
Comley said that while the Spartans were excited about beating their archrivals, “There was no yelling and screaming.
“We respect who we played tonight and respect who we play tomorrow. I know we just beat them twice, but they were coming off clinching a championship, and on the road, so it’s going to be a heck of a championship game,” said Comley.