DETROIT — In their CCHA-record 15th championship-game appearance, the No. 2 seed Michigan State Spartans captured their record 11th title with a 2-1 win over No. 1 seed Miami.
The title was the first for head coach Rick Comley since taking the MSU reins in 2001-02 from Ron Mason, the current Michigan State athletic director for whom the league’s postseason championship trophy is named. Comley spent 26 years as the head coach of the Northern Michigan Wildcats.
“Somebody said that it’s been 25 years since I won the last one in the CCHA,” said a beaming Comley. “Now there’s a couple of WCHAs mixed in there. I hope we don’t wait 25 more.”
He added the last while glancing at MSU captain Drew Miller, sitting to his left.
“It’s a proud program, and a rich, rich tradition, and we’re all so happy to be a part of it,” Comley continued. “For me, obviously, it feels good but it’s irrelevant how I feel. I mean these kids … they’ve been such a good team to coach, and have rallied, and pushed themselves and prodded themselves, and they approach it exactly the way you’d want them to.
“They’ve dealt with adversity this year and fought through it and overcame a very good team tonight and a very good team last night.”
The Spartans capped a CCHA season that was really two seasons: the first half defined by the injuries and illnesses among the players, the second a blueprint for a winning season. MSU went 8-8-5 from October through December, but since January the Spartans are 16-3-3.
“What we did tonight as a team was a big step for us,” said Miller. “We’ve been through a lot this year. We did it for each other. Each guy in the locker room played for each guy here.”
Saturday, the Spartans earned the right to raise their banner in Joe Louis Arena by stifling the explosive Miami offense, limiting the RedHawks to just 23 shots on net, six each in the second and third periods.
“Michigan State does a great job at blocking shots, so every time we got the puck, you pick up your head and there’s somebody in the shot lane,” said Miami captain Andy Greene. “We tried to pass the puck around and they were just getting in shot lanes, an we didn’t do that great a job of getting in front of [netminder Jeff] Lerg. He played a fantastic game.”
The teams exchanged goals just 20 seconds apart in the fast-paced first period. Justin Abdelkader scored on the first Spartan power play of the game at 14:13, with Ryan Jones knotting it for Miami at 14:33.
Abdelkader finished a play begun by Corey Potter at the right point. Potter sent the puck down and around the goal Tim Kennedy at the far side of the left circle, and Kennedy bumped it Tim Crowder, who was sprinting toward the net.
Abdelkader was crossing the crease with Crowder, left to right, when Miami goalie Jeff Zatkoff went sprawling to defend against Crowder — who himself went to the ice face down, yet managed to pass to Abdelkader. At the right post, Abdelkader turned and fired up and over Zatkoff for the brief 1-0 lead.
On the Miami goal 20 seconds later, Alec Martinez fired from the right point, high, and Jones plucked the puck from midair in the slot. The puck fell to the ice in front of Lerg, who could not cover in time as Jones forced the puck between Lerg’s legs for the equalizer. The goal was reviewed but stood and the first period ended 1-1.
David Booth scored the game winner at 5:25 in the second with a lightning-quick pickup of Jim McKenzie’s initial shot from the right point. Zatkoff made the initial save, but the puck bounced off his chest to the crashing Booth, who buried it immediately.
Throughout the game, the RedHawks struggled with both penalties and puck possession. MSU went 1-for-6 on the power play, Miami 0-for-3.
The RedHawks tried to pull Zatkoff for a man advantage long before the 19:24 mark in the third when he was finally able to leave the net, but the Spartans kept up the offensive pressure to prevent the Miami goaltender’s exit.
“We knew coming into the game that they have some skilled forwards and some speed. We were just trying to weather the storm a few times and we were having some trouble getting down the ice because they were bringing it so hard, and in those situations we’ve got to get the puck out,” said Greene.
“They were coming so hard that we really couldn’t, so that caused some of us to be out there, maybe 30 seconds, a minute longer. That will take a toll on you during the course of the game.
“They were taking a lot of passing lanes away with their sticks, and that’s when we’ve got to make sure we’re supporting the puck. We started doing that a little bit in the third … they were forcing us out of our comfort zone.”
“Whenever you’re taking consecutive penalties, you’re using the same guys so some of these guys get tired and don’t have the jump that maybe they need to five-on-five,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “We played five defensemen for two periods. [Mitch] Ganzak was injured there for a little bit and it finally got to a point where he could come back and skate. A couple of these guys played a lot of minutes tonight.”
Miller said that the entire Spartan team defense was responsible for smothering one of the hottest offenses in the CCHA.
“We didn’t give them many chances this weekend,” he said.
Blasi said that the RedHawks were unable to play their game for 60 minutes. “I thought the first period was a very good period. The second period, I thought Michigan State had us on our heels a little bit and took it to us at times. We just didn’t sustain enough pressure in the game to get any pressure on Jeff Lerg.”
Lerg, named the tournament MVP, finished the night with 22 saves to Zatkoff’s 32.
“When you get an opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it because you don’t know when it’s going to happen again,” said Lerg. “Play every game as if it’s your last, and kind of go from there.”
With the win, the Spartans (24-11-8) earned the CCHA’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament, but both MSU and the RedHawks (26-8-4) were tournament locks before this match.
Said Comley, “Obviously, there’s a lot of celebrating, but these seniors have been through a lot. Finally on the ice we said, ‘You know what, guys? This tastes really good, but this is just one more step in the process.’”
“We’re going to enjoy this, but tomorrow morning we’re going to find out where we’re going and then mentally we’ll be ready for that next phase.”