ALBANY, N.Y. — It had been 14 years since Michigan State and Maine squared off in the NCAA tournament.
It was worth the wait, as the Black Bears jumped out to leads of 3-0 and 4-1 before weathering a Spartan run and holding on for a 5-4 victory to advance to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee.
“That game lived up to the game I thought it would be,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley.
“To advance past Michigan State, that was special,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “They showed why they are such a special team with the way they battled back.”
Whitehead’s captain agreed.
“We’re very fortunate right now to have gotten the win and to move on,” said senior Greg Moore.
The Black Bears’ offense set the tone early in the first period, picking up where it left off after yesterday’s six-goal outburst against Harvard. Maine notched the all-important first tally just 3:13 into the first period when the lone rookie in the lineup scored his third of the season.
Senior Derek Damon won a faceoff in the MSU zone and moved the puck back to freshman defenseman Matt Duffy, who wristed shot by a screened Jeff Lerg that deflected off MSU blueliner Jared Nightingale on the way in.
“I didn’t see it,” said the netminder. “I thought it was still in my stomach, but then I heard people celebrating.”
Maine and its fans were not done. The Black Bears kept up the pressure in the Spartans’ zone, forcing Lerg to make some quick pad saves to keep the game 1-0. But midway through the period, Maine broke through again. This time, senior John Hopson tipped a Mike Hamilton shot by Lerg while standing just a few feet in front of the netminder.
“I was just fortunate to be in the right place and the right time,” said Hopson.
The goal prompted Comley to call timeout to try to slow Maine’s momentum and turn around a game in which his club was being outshot 10-3 at the time.
“You only get one timeout in hockey,” he explained. “It’s tough as to when to use it. We wanted to put some positive thoughts in [the players'] heads.”
It seemed to help, but only until the Spartans’ David Booth was whistled for taking a needless roughing penalty in the offensive zone. Maine controlled the puck while on the power play and, with one second left on the man-advantage, scored again to make it 3-0. This time, Duffy’s slapshot from the right point was redirected into the net by Hopson for his second of the game.
“The goals they got were good,” said MSU captain Drew Miller. “They were tipped and those are tough for the goaltender to see and react to.”
With time winding down in the opening period, however, Michigan State scored a power-play goal of its own, a desperately-needed tally at 19:16. Rookie Tim Kennedy centered the puck from the right boards to the slot for classmate Tim Crowder, who made a quick move to his backhand and beat Maine’s Ben Bishop for his second tally in as many nights.
“It was a great goal scored to get back in the game,” said Crowder. “We gave them the worst lead in hockey — a two-goal lead.”
The intermission also helped as MSU came out strong to start the second, but a hitting-from-behind penalty to Kennedy stopped them in their tracks. And when Damon was left alone in the faceoff circle, he made it 4-1 Black Bears with a power-play tally at 3:35.
The Spartans’ hopes of advancing to Milwaukee appeared slim. But slim was all they needed to mount a rally — that, and a too-many-men-on-the-ice call against Maine at 7:22. It was the opening the Spartans were looking for and, once again, Crowder was there to convert. Planted in the slot, he took a Kennedy pass and shoveled the puck by an outstretched Bishop to cut the deficit back to two goals.
When MSU hit a crossbar just over three minutes later, the momentum appeared to be shifting. But Maine killed off two more Spartan power plays and seemed poised to head into the second intermission up 4-2.
With just 59 seconds left in the stanza, however, MSU pulled to within a goal as sophomore Jim McKenzie’s wrist shot found space between Bishop’s arm and his body. When two Maine players collided in the Black Bears’ zone, McKenzie was left with open ice down the right side and he took advantage.
“We knew Michigan State would be a hard-fought battle all night,” said Hopson, who sat out last season after transferring from Alaska-Anchorage to play with his brother and current linemate Keenan.
Maine responded in the third period with a steadier performance, however.
“We needed to go back to playing the way we did in the first period,” admitted Moore. “We needed to put as much pressure on them as possible. We felt we sat back in the second, and we’re not playing effectively when we play like that.”
The Black Bears limited the Spartans to nine shots in the third after allowing 28 over the first two stanzas.
Even so, MSU came inches from tying the score on a wraparound by Colton Fretter at 15:12 of the third. The senior swung around the cage and emerged to Bishop’s left, where he lifted a backhander that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced into the crease. Bishop then covered the puck, but not without some anxious seconds.
“My left skate got caught and I couldn’t get my leg there,” said the goalie. “I tried with my glove and the next thing I know, I’m flopping around.”
“It definitely hit the crossbar and came back down,” said Comley when asked if he thought the puck had gone in. “Drew [Miller] took one swipe at it and then someone grabbed his stick.”
That was as close as the Spartans came. Maine added an empty-netter at 19:23 and Miller snuck the puck by Bishop in a mad scramble at 19:55, but it wasn’t enough.
“It takes so much energy to come back,” Comley explained. “I hated to pull the goaltender. It makes me sick because 90 percent of the time they score.
“These kids gave everything they had. If we played them 10 times, it would be a one-goal game. A battle. [Maine] is a great team. They’re obviously a battle-tested team. It’s a big-game program.”
With the win, the Black Bears are now an unfathomable 102-0-6 in their last 108 games when leading after two periods. This time, though, the Spartans made them sweat.
Bishop finished the contest with 33 saves, while Lerg stopped 29. Maine was 2-for-2 on the power play to MSU’s 2-for-4. The Black Bears move on to play the winner of Sunday’s Cornell-Wisconsin regional final in Milwaukee.