EAST LANSING, Mich. — No. 10 Michigan State is finally finding a way to win when it doesn’t bring it’s “A” game.
After failing to capitalize on several opportunities to put the game out of reach in the middle frame and allowing Lake Superior to tie the game late in the third period, the Spartans used a Bryan Lerg deflection to sneak by the Lakers 3-2 in overtime.
“Earlier in the year, if we didn’t have our best effort, we didn’t win the game,” said Lerg. “In the second half, we’ve been coming together better as a team, especially in the locker room between periods. We went down one after the first period, but we didn’t panic at all. If we relax, we’ll be in the game and have a chance to win.”
MSU’s Nick Sucharski raced into the zone and fired the puck on net, but goaltender Pat Inglis knocked it into far corner. Right wing Jim McKenzie fished the puck out of the corner and fluttered a shot high over the net to the opposite corner where Sucharski won the puck and slid it back to Brandon Gentile at the left point. Gentile fired a hard, low wrister that Lerg was able to tip home from the bottom of the left circle, one-hopping over Inglis’ right pad and into the net for the deciding goal.
Notching a winner is not anything new for Lerg, who leads the country in game-winning goals with five more than one third of his team-leading 14 goals. The junior from Livonia, Mich. has now scored 14 points in his last 10 games, crediting his recent hot streak to being moved from the wing back to his natural position in the center.
“I feel like it’s a lot of the reason. I can keep my feet moving when I’m at center rather than standing still on the wing waiting for something to happen. That’s what gets my speed going and allows me to go wide or bust through the middle,” said Lerg.
Tonight’s win marked the fourth consecutive game that the Spartans have gutted out a victory in the final 20 minutes of the game, and their second overtime win in their last three games.
MSU’s resiliency allowed it to pull out the win, but its lack of a killer instinct prevented it from putting the contest out of reach in the second period.
“If we could have got that two goal lead, we could have been off and running,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “It was a frustrating games in many ways and we’re lucky to get a win.
The Spartans had several chances to put the game away in the middle frame, none better than a short-handed two-on-one with Lerg and Chris Mueller
“We don’t score easily and we’re going to be a lot of tight games because of that. We had a lot of great chances. Mueller broke a stick on that shorthanded chance. We hit the post twice,” said Comley.
Pat Inglis’s play had quite a bit to do with the Spartans’ inability to score goals. The 6’4″ freshman from Calgary, Alb. is a more than able backup for the incumbent Jeff Jakaitis.
“When you get good goaltending you’re going to stick around in games,” said LSSU coach Jim Roque. “Pat Inglis played well for us tonight and kept us in the game when we didn’t deserve to be in there late. He’s a big kid and he competes hard.”
“He is big, but he’s square,” said Comley. “The word that we heard is that he has questionable feet, but he didn’t really need to use his feet because he’s covers so much of the net when he’s on his knees. They’ve got a real solid replacement for Jeff Jakaitis next year.”
He finished the game with 37 saves on 40 shots, dropping to 5-2 on the season with a 2.73 goals against average and .913 save percentage.
LSSU’s secrets to success are no secret. It must score power play goals and get good goaltending in order to win hockey games. Tonight, only half of that equation was in place, as the Lakers failed to score in six opportunities with the man advantage.
Some of the credit is due to the Spartan penalty killers, who have now killed 24 of 25 penalties dating back to the GLI title game against Michigan.
“Their guys up top waited and waited with the pucks, so we pressured them hard and we were able to break them up. One time, Mueller broke them up and we were able to skate down on a two-on-one, but the goalie made a couple of terrific saves,” said Lerg.
Further troubling Roque was the Lakers’ tendency to take bad penalties, especially in the second period when MSU was controlling play.
“We took five penalties in the second period, all of the deserved,” said Roque. “We played half the second period shorthanded, and that really took a lot out of us, forcing our best players to get tired killing penalties. We took too many stupid penalties in the second period because we were lazy and undisciplined.”
LSSU jumped out on the Spartans early with Josh Sim’s rebound putaway at 6:18 of the first period. Simon Grybers fired a puck on goaltender Jeff Lerg from the high slot that bounced off the keeper and landed on Sim’s stick at the left post. The sophomore from Saskatoon, Sask. promptly slid the puck under Lerg and into the net for the goal.
MSU controlled the second period, rebounding to claim a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes.
The Spartans got on the board in a wacky play that was at one point a six-on-three. With MSU already on a five-on-three, a delayed penalty was called on the Lakers, and MSU pulled its goaltender in favor of the extra skater.
The Spartans controlled play for what seemed like a full minute without the puck being touched up. During the possession, a Laker came out of the box to make it a six-on-four, but Sucharski slammed home a rebound from the right side of the net.
With the player whistled for the delayed penalty in the box after the goal, sophomore center Justin Abdelkader scored just 1:57 later on the ensuing power play. With the clock winding down on the advantage, Abdelkader picked up the puck at the center point and slid to the right, uncorking a rocket slapshot through traffic and just under the crossbar to put the Spartans ahead 2-1.
Lake Superior tied the game at 14:32 of the third period on Sim’s second of the night and 11th of the season. Again, it was a case of being at the right place at the right time as a rebound found itself on Sim’s stick ripe for a putaway.
“We’re resilient. We didn’t panic after giving up a goal that late. Sometimes you’re afraid that the next shot might go in after that, but we rebounded and we hung in there,” said Comley.
Lerg responded with the overtime winner at 2:52 of the extra frame.
The two teams will rematch tomorrow evening with an unusual 6:05 faceoff time. The time change is due to television coverage, as FSN Detroit will broadcast the game live before its Red Wings/Avalanche game at 9:00.