DETROIT — A very different looking Michigan State lineup built two different two-goal leads to best Harvard 5-2 in the opening game of the Great Lakes Invitational on Friday evening.
After losing key players to injuries and the World Junior Championship, Spartan coach Rick Comley had a challenging time developing a lineup to answer the Crimson’s talent and physical play.
Missing two of his top six forwards, Comley placed Chris Mueller in the middle between Tim Kennedy and Tim Crowder. Mueller answered with the game-winner, albeit on the power play, with a very difficult shot down low.
“It was a heck of a pickup on his backhand and a very good play to put us down 3-2 going into the third,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato.
Mueller’s goal came more than four minutes into a major penalty for checking from behind to Harvard defenseman David MacDonald.
Goalscorer Bryan Lerg was placed on a second line featuring two smallish defensemen, Tyler Howells and Chris Snavely, and that combination also paid dividends for Comley with Lerg chipping in a goal and assist and Howells contributing with his first goal of the season.
“I think they’re all 5’7″ so it’s a really powerful line,” quipped MSU coach Rick Comley. “We’re reaching and searching right now and we had to come up with something. (The defenseman) skate well and they are really filling a void for us right now.”
At 11:41 of the first period, Lerg responded by opening the scoring on the man advantage, collecting his own rebound, and sliding it past Harvard — and former Michigan State — goaltender Justin Tobe.
Howells, who scored 34 points last season as a defenseman, doubled the lead by firing a Tobe rebound into the back of the net from the bottom of the left circle, giving the Spartans a 2-0 advantage on a pair of power play goals.
A new top power play unit was also a big ingredient in Comley’s winning recipe. Coming into the game, the Spartans (17-for-102) had been frustrated on the man advantage, looking excellent in some stretches and struggling mightily in others.
“We are stressing traffic and shots, but it’s funny on the power play because sometimes you go stretches where nothing happens and nothing works but you’re not really doing anything different. All we did was practice that for twenty minutes and take three weeks off,” said Comley.
Comley decided to stack his power play, skating Mueller with Lerg and Kennedy up front with Tim Crowder and Ryan Turek on the points. The decision paid off as the Spartans scored three times with the extra man.
“We loaded that first group up as much as we could because we’ve struggled so much to create offense and score over the last ten games,” said Comley.
Harvard’s duo of Mike Taylor and Ryan Maki evened the score on a pair of goals around the midpoint of the game to erase the early deficit.
Taylor put Harvard on the board late in the first period with a third-chance scoring opportunity. Doug Rogers carried across the goalmouth but goaltender Jeff Lerg was able to knock the puck free. It found its way to Maki, who flipped the puck into the near post, finally landing on Taylor’s tape for an easy put away.
“I think we really battled back and in the second period we got rewarded for the amount of work we did to get back to 2-2,” Donato said.
Maki, who grew up in the Detroit area had a bittersweet homecoming, assisting on Taylor’s goal as well as scoring his own rebound goal in a losing effort.
Daniel Sturges put MSU up by a 4-2 score just 3:06 into the final frame on a well-executed two-on-two with Zak McClellan. McClellan, who had just dished out a check at the Harvard bench curled back to receive a pass at the Harvard blue line, dropping a pass back to Sturges and setting up a screen. Sturges buried a shot low to the far corner on a goal that made the pair look a lot more like first liner than fourth liners.
The goal was of paramount importance because it allowed the Spartans to fall back into their trademark defensive shell to prevent Harvard from mounting a late comeback. When leading headed into the final period over the past five seasons, Michigan State is a Mariano Rivera-like 96-6-6.
“They got the timely goal there which put it out of reach for all intensive purposes, especially with the way that Lerg was playing. We didn’t get quality chances in the third period for the most part,” said Donato. “We felt we were on the verge of getting back in the game, but our best chances came in the first two periods.”
Although the Crimson did not generate many quality chances late in the game, they fired 47 shots on Jeff Lerg who responded with a career-high 45 saves.
“The best thing about a game like tonight for Jeff is that his numbers will go up,” said Comley. “You could tell early that he was focused. He was seeing pucks through traffic and catching pucks clean”
With the win, Michigan State will play in its ninth GLI championship game in the last 10 tournaments, aiming to remain the only traditional participant to win the title in the last decade. The championship game is scheduled for 7:30PM Saturday and will air live on FSN Detroit.