EAST LANSING, Mich. — With the help of a goal scored with less than one second left in the first period, Western Michigan completed a sweep of sixth-ranked Michigan State by a 2-0 margin before a crowd of 7,116 at Munn Ice Arena on Saturday.
“There were a lot of reasons we won tonight: we executed our systems well, we were diligent in our urgency and desperation in terms of winning battles, and we also got some timely execution,” said WMU coach Jim Culhane.
“Timely” was an understatement for the Broncos’ first goal of the evening. As the first period expired, the puck bounced its way to the Broncos’ Patrick Galivan, who promptly stuffed it into an empty net. After ruling the play a goal on the ice, referee Keith Surgott confirmed what he saw on video replay, that the puck did indeed cross the goal line completely with 0.02 seconds remaining in the period.
“On the first goal we totally shot ourselves in the foot,” said MSU netminder Jeff Lerg. “We broke down, all six guys on the ice and there was no time left in the period. I thought we were just gonna eat it, but the puck hit a skate right to their guy’s stick and into the empty net. And that was the game right there.”
Normally 0.02 seconds decides an Olympic sprint, but Saturday it gave WMU its first sweep of the Spartans in nearly 15 years, dating back to December 10-11, 1993. It also marked the first time the Broncos have been victorious at Munn since that same weekend.
“It’s a really special thing understanding how difficult it is to win on the road in this league. Prior to tonight, Michigan State had only lost one home game all year, and this is certainly a tough place to play,” said Culhane.
After an offensive-style game Friday night in which the Broncos scored four goals on the stingy Spartan defense, WMU showed that it can win a tight-checking affair as well.
“They played two different styles on two different nights,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “Teams that lay back against us and force our defensemen to handle the puck a lot are successful against us.”
“We try to take a lunch-pail approach to the game. We want to be a blue-collar team, put our hard hats on and come to work every day,” said Culhane.
The Broncos bottled up the Spartans’ offense, limited their opponents to just 19 shots on goal and less than a handful of quality chances. Some of the credit should go to freshman netminder Riley Gill, who with the win improved to 11-6-1 on the season and notched his fourth career shutout.
WMU also drastically improved its penalty kill, which allowed three power-play goals Friday. The Broncos were a perfect seven-for-seven on the evening, including a five-on-three and a couple of four-on-three opportunities.
“Our penalty kill was superb,” said Culhane.
Jeff LoVecchio sealed the deal for the Broncos with a gorgeous goal at the 10:57 mark of the third period. The sophomore winger from Chesterfield, Mo., knocked a rebound clean out of the air and past Lerg for the 2-0 final.
What a difference a week makes for the Spartans. Just seven nights ago, Michigan State was on top the world, riding a nation best nine-game unbeaten streak. After Saturday’s loss, the MSU finds itself winless in its last four.
“We’ve only had two bad stretches all year and they’ve both come playing five games in nine days. It just looks like we’re out of gas,” said Comley. “There wasn’t any energy and there wasn’t any emotion. Giving up a goal late was a killer, but we just did not have good energy and we looked tired.”
Most expected the highly-rated Spartans to come out of the gates with fervor after falling to the Broncos in the opener, but there were almost no signs of life from the Michigan State bench.
“This is a team built on emotion and we just didn’t have that emotion,” said Comley. “We’ve won a lot of close games, we’ve squeaked a lot of close games out, and we’ve won a lot of overtime games. Sometimes percentages catch up to you.”
Looking forward, Michigan State’s immediate goal is to secure a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs.
“We need a win and we need the week off. A lot of good things can happen when you get the bye in the first round,” said Comley. “We got the first week off, won a tough round, went to Detroit, and well, you know the rest.”
Headed into the final weekend of the regular season, the Spartans will need either a win at Bowling Green or a loss by Western Michigan to do so.
“How frustrating is it? Really. I don’t have the word to describe how frustrating it is. But I also don’t believe it changes anything, our potential, or anything. We haven’t been able to win easily this season. If we can win next weekend we’ll feel better about everything and we’ll move from there,” said Comley.