ALBANY, N.Y. — You always hear coaches talk about the “little things” in college sports. After Saturday’s opening game of the 2006 NCAA East Regional, Michigan State head coach Rick Comley may want to make it part of his credo.
In a game where his Spartans did all of the little things perfectly, a Tim Crowder goal just 2:14 into the first period was all the offense either team would muster as top-seeded Michigan State eliminated No. 4 New Hampshire, 1-0, to advance to Sunday’s regional final.
The Spartans played a near-perfect game defensively, particularly in the neutral zone and on the forecheck, keeping UNH out of the offensive zone late in the game and limiting the quality scoring chances throughout. Michigan State also dominated the faceoffs in the game, winning 41 to New Hampshire’s 15, including a key defensive zone draw with seven seconds left in regulation to finish off the game.
“We pay attention to detail in each and every aspect of the game,” said Comley, whose club beat New Hampshire for the first time in four tries in NCAA play. “We talk about it. We practice it. It’s detail at this time of year that’s important.”
Nowhere was that attention to detail more important on Saturday than in goal. Rookie netminder Jeff Lerg (36 saves) posted Michigan State’s first-ever shutout in NCAA play, and in doing so proved his practice habits could pay off at key times.
Lerg made a game-saving stop on UNH’s Brett Hemingway at the two-minute mark of the third period that came off a play that Lerg was anticipating.
“It’s a drill that I work on pretty much every single day,” said Lerg of a backdoor pass from Jacob Mikflicker to Hemingway that forced the netminder to move from his left to right quickly to get a pad on the puck, making the stop just an inch short of the goal line. “We know that [UNH] likes to look backdoor a lot on the power play.
“I told all the guys in the locker room that they helped me out, that’s what got me that save because we do that [drill]2-3 times a week.”
“We were screaming from the bench,” said Comley of the fact that Hemingway was left alone at the left post. “You could’ve probably heard me up in the stands,”
The game’s lone goal came before most of the sparse crowd had settled into their seats. Crowder took a headman pass from linemate Tim Kennedy and, as he reached the blueline, fired a blast that beat UNH goaltender Jeff Pietrasiak (29 saves) cleanly, ricocheting off the left post and in.
“I just put my head down as soon as I hit the blueline and shot it,” said Crowder of his 15th goal of the season. “Luckily it picked the far side. It was a great feeling.”
“It was kind of a knuckle puck,” said UNH’s Pietrasiak about the only save that got away. “I might have been a little bit off my angle. It’s kind of unfortunate that they’d have to score that way.”
In a 1-0 game, obviously defense is major factor. Though UNH played extremely well in stopping the Spartans, it was Michigan State defense that was all-out impressive. Throughout much of the game, but particularly in the second and third periods, Michigan State was able to bottle up the neutral zone and create UNH turnovers, while keeping the Wildcats from being able to penetrate the offensive zone with numbers.
“That play a one-four [forecheck] where they keep four guys along the blueline,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “It’s very difficult to carry [the puck] in and you’re not going to get many odd-man rushes through the neutral zone.”
“We work hard in the defensive zone,” said Comley, whose club has not allowed more than three goals in a game since a 5-5 tie with Michigan on January 28. “Some people call us a trap team, but we play neutral zone defense.”
The victory advances Michigan State to within a game of the Frozen Four, a place the Spartans have been ten times in the past, most recently in 2001 when the Frozen Four was, ironically, held in Albany. Additionally, victory marked the first win for the CCHA as a conference in this year’s tournament after Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha were crushed by a combined 19-3 score on Friday night.
“It’s so tough to play in this tournament because there are so many good teams,” said Comley. “Obviously, we didn’t want our conference to get swept, so if we’re representing them and we do well, that’s perfect.”
UNH, on the other hand, ends its season at 20-13-7, though Umile admitted he was extremely proud of his teams play, particularly after getting routed, 9-2, by Boston University in last weekend’s Hockey East semifinal.
“You work all year to get the right chemistry together and to get on a groove and we did that at the end of the season, regardless of what happened in the Hockey East semifinals,” said Umile. “People were concerned with how we were going to respond and obviously this team played very well tonight. It’s difficult when your team is plenty well and guys are enjoying play to have the season end.”