EAST LANSING, Mich. — Fourth-ranked Michigan State rebounded from its least-inspired effort of the young season Friday to blank No. 5 Notre Dame by a 2-0 score on Saturday evening.
“Before the game, we talked about how if we are a legitimate team that we can’t be afraid to label a game as must-win, and this is a game that we had to win,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
After getting outmuscled and outmatched on Friday, the Spartans turned the tables on the upstart Irish with a dominant performance of their own.
“I was impressed with how we came out. I was worried fatigue-wise. We were really resilient and Jeff Lerg was strong start to finish,” said Comley.
“We wore more on our heels, and I’m sure that had a little something to do with Michigan State,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “They were first to pucks tonight where we were first to pucks last night. It was a little tit-for-tat as far as home ice advantage probably.”
All MSU needed was a couple of Lergs to best ND. Sophomore goaltender Jeff Lerg stymied the Irish’s offensive attack, stopping all 25 shots for his second shutout in the last three contests.
“For my part, it was controlling rebounds tonight. I only gave up a couple and last night I gave them more chances,” said Lerg.
“Jeff just had that look like he wasn’t going to give anything up tonight,” said Comley.
Jeff’s cousin, junior forward Bryan Lerg, tallied the game-winning goal on the power play at the 3:39 mark of the second period.
Freshman defenseman Mike Ratchuk snapped a pass down to the bottom of the right circle to Lerg, who redirected the pass with his stick blade, knifing the puck up into the air, over goaltender David Brown’s shoulder, and into the back of the net.
Bryan Lerg’s score broke open a game that was relatively methodical through the first period.
“A lot of energy gets expired on Friday nights and it’s hard to play as physical on Saturday,” said Jackson. “We were a bit more on our heels and we didn’t really respond until midway through the game.
Tim Crowder gave the Spartans a little breathing room in the opening minutes of the third period, scoring an odd goal from a bad angle for a two-goal, 2-0, lead. Fellow sophomore Justin Abdelkader skated the puck into the Irish zone on the right boards and slipped a drop pass to Crowder, who surprised Brown with a wrist shot high to the near side from between the boards and the top-right of the circle.
“It sure jumped in there, so I thought it went in off a stick or something,” said Comley.
Notre Dame pulled Brown with 1:24 remaining but could not muster a goal.
“We’ve been pretty good at minimizing shots and scoring chances this year. If we’re going to lose, it’s going to be a game where we just can’t get the puck in,” Jackson said.
“We weren’t moving the puck as crisply, quickly, or as much as we needed to. Michigan State was aggressive plus they were doing a lot better job of getting in shot lanes and blocking shots, so we weren’t getting shots through.”
Lerg, who had an outstanding freshman campaign, is taking strides toward shedding a forgettable start of the season in net for MSU.
The sophomore keeper made 10 saves in the third period with most coming under immense pressure. With just over six minutes left, Ryan Thang received a pass straight up the middle of the ice and broke in all alone on Lerg, who was up to the task.
Minutes later with the Irish threatening, Lerg stoned his childhood friend, Erik Condra (Livonia, Mich.) with a diving paddle stop.
“I saw his stick hanging around the post, so I knew I had to outmuscle him and get my stick down,” said Lerg. “It was good that we played him twice and I was able to keep him off the scoresheet in the goalscoring category.”
With the win, Lerg improved his stat line to 6-3-1 with a 2.88 goals against average and .885 save percentage.
MSU assistant captain Ethan Graham went down with a knee injury early in the game. Graham is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, possibly returning for the Great Lakes Invitational.
“When we lost Graham early, we were left with five very young defenseman and I thought they responded very well tonight, all of them as a group,” said Comley.
With the win, the Spartans remain an unbeaten 5-0-1 at the friendly confines of Munn Arena. They will embark, however, on the toughest road trip in college hockey next week, traveling to Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena on Tuesday before enjoying Thanksgiving weekend at Minnesota and Wisconsin in the College Hockey Showcase.
Notre Dame, which suffered its first league loss of the season, will travel to lovely Omaha over Thanksgiving weekend for a pair against league foe Nebraska-Omaha.