EAST LANSING, Mich. — There’s been no love lost between Michigan State and Alaska since their three-game, 160 penalty minute playoff series last spring.
Referee Brian Aaron, who also worked that series, let the teams play tonight, and the penalty minutes didn’t stack up.
Until the bitter end.
The Spartans and Nanooks celebrated MSU’s 3-2 thrilling overtime win with a handshake line brawl that included 72 penalty minutes, four disqualifications, and a coaching newbie calling out one of the college game’s longest standing bench bosses.
Pending league review of the incident to make sure that the penalties were assessed to the correct players, MSU will be without captain Chris Lawrence and defenseman Brandon Gentile, and Alaska will skate tomorrow without assistant captain T.J. Campbell and Ryan Muspratt.
It appeared as if Tyler Binab was Gentile’s dance partner, so it’s likely that league officials will change the penalties after review.
Still, the biggest shot may have been fired by coach Tavis MacMillan who jawed and finger wagged with Comley at center ice during the coaches’ handshake.
“They ran our goaltender at least three times, and I told him that they don’t want to play that game,” said MacMillan, who is in just his third season as head coach. “He should know that. They’ve got one of the best goaltenders in the country”
“I was talking to Rick and (Tyler) Howells was piping off to me, and grabbed my shoulder, and one of my guys came to my back.”
After that, a melee broke loose that otherwise overshadowed a terrific comeback from the Spartans, who probably should have pointed their sticks to the scoreboard and skated off the ice.
“Coaches don’t need to start going after each other after games. That was unfortunate and it’s not good for college hockey,” said Comley. “We played them in a playoff series last year that was almost out of control last year, and obviously there is no love lost between these two teams.”
“We’re college hockey coaches; it’s not the East Coast Hockey League,” said Comley. “Have some class and take a tough win or a tough loss, and shake hands. If you’re mad then that’s okay, but you can’t incite players. Now two players for each team have to sit tomorrow night on something that started between coaches.”
“There was too much traffic around the goaltenders at both ends,” said Comley. “He doesn’t advocate running goalies and neither do I.”
Down 2-1 midway through the third period, Justin Abdelkader, fresh off a bronze medal at the World Juniors, drew the Spartans even with a crafty play in front of the net.
“Sometimes you have to let the goaltender make the first move, but this time I made the move. I got the goalie out of position and hit the open side of the net,” said Abdelkader.
With 2:44 remaining, Jeff Lerg made a couple of game-savers on Nanook stud Kyle Greentree, who picked up a loose puck at the left post and had two whacks from point blank range, but a sprawling Lerg had the answer.
“He was on the goal line there and he tried to shoot it, and I didn’t think I had enough time to get out in front of him, so I threw my back at him kind of like Dominic Hasek. I tried to throw up my legs too. I tried to get anything I could on it because that could have been the game winner right there,” said Lerg.
Still, the Nanooks had a golden opportunity to win in the extra session with 1:47 of power play carryover. The penalties ensued when the third major scrum of the night broke out on an effort from Abdelkader that took him through Braden Walls and into the goaltender Wylie Rogers.
Interestingly enough, Abdelkader took two penalties on the play and neither of them was for goaltender interference or charging.
After killing the penalty, almost all of the momentum had swung to MSU, and the Spartans’ Tim Kennedy capitalized with the game-winner.
Kennedy picked the puck up against the right side boards, and the left-handed shot curled the faceoff circle, carrying the puck through Curtis Fraser, before wiring a wrister over Rogers’ shoulder to the top left corner.
“He’s just so crafty,” said Comley. “That was a great shot. He’s the one guy who can do that because he’s so elusive. He’s our best player and we need him to come through at a time like that.”
Tonight’s game marked the third game in the last four that a clearly frustrated Alaska team has played well, earned a late lead, and managed to come out on the losing side.
“Our kids are playing hard, they are playing well. We’re just missing that one or two players to put that goal away,” said MacMillan.
On the other bench, it was the Spartans’ second straight third-period comeback with the last coming at Miami on Saturday.
“It’s a good sign that they don’t too down when they aren’t playing well,” said Comley. “To win a game when you aren’t playing well is what good teams do.”
Both teams will hope to put the fireworks away for Saturday and play a good, clean game. During the playoffs last year, they were able to do so with only 30 penalty minutes in the deciding game.
Still, Jeff Lerg may want to watch out for an angry polar bear or two bearing down on him.