EAST LANSING, Mich. — Junior Jim McKenzie potted the go-ahead goal at the 19-minute mark of the third period to stunt a late Nebraska-Omaha rally and help propel Michigan State to a 4-2 victory over the Mavericks in Game 1 of the best-of-three quarterfinal series at Munn Ice Arena on Saturday evening.
Jeff Lerg made 23 saves and McKenzie and Bryan Lerg each had a goal and an assist to help MSU to the win.
McKenzie’s goal came as a result of some hard work in the offensive zone by Bryan Lerg, who carried the puck up the right wall, but turned at the hash and fired to defenseman Jeff Dunne below the blueline at center ice.
Dunne found McKenzie on the doorstep, and the junior gently flipped the puck over the glove hand of Jerad Kaufman for the game-winner. Bryan Lerg added an insurance tally — with some crafty stickwork to both tick seconds off the clock and elude two Maverick defenders — for the final 4-2 margin.
“It was really a great pass by Jeff Dunne,” said McKenzie. “I went to the net looking for a rebound. He put the pass in a perfect spot, and I ended up just being right there to put it in.”
The teams skated through a scoreless opening frame, but Jeff Lerg and the Spartan defense came up with a big save midway through the period, thwarting a 3-on-2 advantage. Dan Swanson flew up the left side and passed off to Nick Fanto, who held the puck for an extra second before firing it netward.
Lerg was up to the task, making the save; the defense kept Brent Kisio from getting a stick on the puck in the crease and cleared away the puck harmlessly. Lerg then came up with impressive back-to-back saves with six minutes remaining in the opening frame, as both Dan Charleston and Jeric Agosta had grade-A chances in the slot.
Michigan State had some looks at Jarad Kaufman in the Maverick net, but had its best scoring chances go wide or just over the cage; the Spartans’ first shot on net didn’t come until the 17:41 mark of the opening period, from the stick of Bryan Lerg.
The visiting Mavericks nearly got on the board less than three minutes into the middle frame when skating on a 4-on-3 advantage. The two point men were nearly at the top of the circles, and working the puck low; Dan Charleston took a shot from the right point which clanged off the crossbar over the shoulder of Jeff Lerg, maintaining the scoreless tie.
Michigan State broke the deadlock at the 11:51 mark of the frame. Working the puck low, Chris Mueller unearthed it from a defender’s skate in the left corner, walked the goal line, and passed through the low slot to a waiting Jay Sprague at the right post, who potted just his second goal of the season to put the Spartans ahead.
Whistled for back-to-back penalties late in the frame, the Spartans had nearly four minutes of power-play time, three minutes of which had expired at the break for the second intermission.
Coming out with a purpose in the third, MSU’s power play looked to give the squad some breathing room — and with just 11 seconds remaining in that second penalty, the Spartans doubled their lead on a Nick Sucharski goal.
Mike Ratchuk untangled the puck from the legs of a prone UNO defender in the left circle and moved it to Jim McKenzie in the high slot. McKenzie’s shot sailed over the cage, but ricocheted out to the right of Kaufman, where Sucharski was stationed at the left post. The sophomore redirected the puck past the netminder for his eighth goal of the season.
Kaufman made his share of quality saves to keep the game close, including on a mini-breakaway attempt by Sucharski with just over 14 minutes remaining in the game.
The Mavs scored twice within a minute to turn a 2-0 deficit into a tie ballgame with just over four minutes remaining. UNO got its first tally at 15:03, on a power-play goal by Dan Knapp from the right point. With senior defenseman Chris Snavely in the box on an obstruction-tripping call, the visitors rang a shot from the right circle off the crossbar within the first five seconds of the penalty. The Mavs converted not long thereafter, as Knapp wristed a feed from Charleston past Jeff Lerg.
Less than a minute later UNO had the equalizer, as a breakdown in coverage allowed Brandon Scero to find a wide-open Mick Lawrence at the bottom of the right circle, and he beat Jeff Lerg over his glove hand.
The Mavericks pushed for a game-winner, but McKenzie’s tally all but ended the UNO threat and the Spartans skated to the victory. Kaufman made 22 saves to earn third-star honors, while Bryan and Jeff Lerg, respectively, earned the first and second stars.
The teams will face off again on Saturday evening at 7:05 at Munn Ice Arena.