EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State advanced to the CCHA championship weekend at Joe Louis Arena for the 25th time in 26 seasons by completing a two-game sweep of Nebraska-Omaha Saturday.
The Spartans moved on with a 4-1 win in the best-of-three quarterfinal round, getting a goal and an assist from Tim Crowder, Chris Mueller, and Jim McKenzie in the victory.
“I thought we played really well in the first period, probably as good as we have played in a month,” said head coach Rick Comley. “We got a little sloppy there in the second; we lost it a bit and took some penalties, but we got it back with a solid, sound third period. We wanted to play well to get to Detroit — this team has had to work so hard to do that.”
While Michigan State struggled to get pucks on net in the first period on Friday, the opposite was true Saturday, as the Spartans had several good chances in the opening half of the first period. The most sustained pressure and quality scoring chances came from the all-sophomore line of Tim Kennedy, Justin Abdelkader, and Crowder, who had half of the team’s nine shots on goal in the opening 10 minutes.
It was that line which gave the Spartans the lead at 15:06. Abdelkader had the puck at the left half-wall, but was tied up with a defender. He was able to move the puck to Crowder at the top of the left circle; the winger circled back into the slot and wristed a shot that eluded netminder Jerramie Dupont low glove-side.
The home team doubled its lead less than two minutes later while skating on the power play. Head coach Rick Comley threw his five top forwards — the all-sophomore line, Bryan Lerg, and Jim McKenzie — out on the man advantage, which paid dividends with a goal at 16:46.
Abdelkader kept the puck in at the right point, and threw it to the far side of the blue line to Crowder. Crowder sent the puck netward for McKenzie in front, but the winger was heavily defended on the doorstep. A crafty and opportunistic Kennedy collected the puck on the right side, moved right-to-left through the low slot, then roofed the puck over the blocker hand of Dupont for his 14th goal of the season.
UNO cut into the lead on an unassisted tally by Alex Nikiforuk at 7:10. The senior drew a delayed penalty on the Spartans in his own defensive zone, then broke in alone through the neutral zone and in on MSU netminder Jeff Lerg, and beat the sophomore goalie with a nice move that saw the puck sail over his glove hand.
The Spartans pushed their lead back to two with another power-play goal midway through the final frame. Chris Snavely got the puck to Tyler Howells at the left point, and his blast was saved by Dupont. Chris Mueller was there to collect the rebound, and he stuffed the puck five-hole for the MSU score.
The Mavericks were aggressive in an attempt to get back into the game, but Jeff Lerg was up to the task, turning away any UNO chances. McKenzie iced the game with an empty-netter with 2.1 seconds remaining.
Dupont had a quality outing in the pipes for the visiting Mavericks, finishing with 34 saves. Jeff Lerg made 20 saves for the Spartans.
The Spartans will face archrival Michigan in the CCHA semifinals next week, by virtue of Lake Superior State’s upset of third-seeded Miami in Oxford this weekend. Lake Superior will face top-seeded Notre Dame in the other semifinal.