EAST LANSING, Mich — A line of young, rambunctious freshmen a year ago is maturing into a talented combination of young men. Michigan State’s Justin Abdelkader, Tim Kennedy, and Tim Crowder combined for three goals and three assists, leading the Spartans past Western Michigan 4-1 in the season opener.
“It’s a confidence level. Last year was all new and exciting. And this year their room for growth is tremendous,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “Last year Kennedy only had three goals (missing 15 games to a broken hand) and Abdelkader only had 10.”
“Last year we learned that Crowder is more of the scorer, Abs can do both, and I’m more of the passer. When you have those two in the slots, and you can find them, it’s usually in the back of the net,” said Kennedy.
Crowder proved his linemate correct, scoring consecutive goals in the second period to break open a game that was 2-1 at the midway point.
“They are great players and when you play with them you just know you’re going to get scoring chance (after scoring chance). We’ve been together for a whole year now. We practice hard together and the chemistry has been great for the three of us,” said Crowder.
“Crowder has great hands and the feel that those guys have is so good. (He) knows where to go and when to get there; he just had to tap his stick twice and Kennedy hit him.”
His first score was a set up by brilliant passing from Kennedy, who faked a cross-ice feed to Abdelkader before finding a trailing Crowder all alone in front.
“I knew he was open because he was screaming from about the blue line down. I threw it to him and he had the whole net, which was a good thing because it was his first goal in about eight tries,” joked Kennedy.
The back-breaker came at the 14:30 mark when Abdelkader spotted Crowder streaking down the right wing boards with no defenders in sight. He induced the goaltender, Daniel Bellissimo, to make the first move and tucked the puck into near side for the 4-1 final.
“We could tell that both of their defensemen were pinching and every time I could just be gone. If Kennedy or Abs had their heads up, I was gone every time. It was just open every time. I have confidence in those guys to get the puck out to me too,” said Crowder
Not to be outdone, Abdelkader notched the first goal of the season for the Spartans with the assist going to Kennedy. Kennedy dug the puck out of the defensive zone and hit Abdelkader with a pass at center ice where he was joined by Crowder on a two-on-one. When both the defenseman and goaltender cheated to take away the pass, Abdelkader smartly slid the puck between the goalie’s skate and the near post.
Bellissimo had a strong effort in net despite allowing four goals. “Dan’s really emerged as one of the elite goaltenders in our conference. He gave us a chance to win and he was our best penalty killer,” and WMU coach Jim Culhane. “He got me good a couple of times,” said Crowder. “And my linemates and my team”
Although the Spartans seemed to do everything right in earning a 2-0 lead, a penalty on Daniel Sturges with 38 seconds remaining brought the Broncos back into the game. Brian Bicek seized the opportunity for WMU, knocking a fluttering rebound past Lerg.
“The mood in the locker room was positive, especially when we scored that goal to make it 2-1,” said Culhane. “It was a one-goal game on the road against a really good opponent. That was a momentum swing that really gave us some confidence going into the second period.
The Broncos also sparkled on specialty teams.
We shut down a very dynamic offensive team on the power play. Our best penalty killer was Dan, and we showed willingness to get into shooting lanes and block shots. We got a power play goal too,” said Culhane.
The high-paced, physical game came to a boiling head during a second period scrum in which the Spartans lost their best returning scorer, Bryan Lerg, and the Broncos lost their top line center to fighting disqualifications.
“Obviously the part of the game that I’m not happy with is taking a five-minute penalty (for fighting) and getting drawn into that. He (Lerg) was protecting his teammate (Mueller) who was checked from behind into the boards, but at the same time it’s not a good trade for us,” said Comley.
Adding a goal to his fight, Lerg finished the night an assist shy of the Gordie Howe hat trick.
Both teams will try to maintain the physical play while staying out of the box in a rare Sunday matchup at 3:05.