DETROIT — The penalty shot has been deemed the most exciting play in hockey. Friday night, it was more than just exciting; it was the game-changing play in the CCHA semifinal matchup between Michigan and Michigan State.
The Spartans were buzzing in the opening minutes, outscoring and out-chancing the Wolverines. Even with Michigan on a man advantage, Justin Abdelkader broke away from the pack on a clear breakaway down the middle of the ice, but he was hauled down from behind by captain Matt Hunwick at the 12:20 mark.
Upon review by referee Matt Shegos, a penalty shot was signaled, giving the sophomore second-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings a chance to bring his home crowd to a frenzy.
“It was probably one of the most nervous moments I’ve had as a hockey player, to come down on a penalty shot in a game like this,” said Abdelkader.
After circling center ice, the left-hand shot sped in on Sauer, swooping to the left from the right side of the slot. He faked a forehand and tried to get the 6-foot-2 goaltender to move side- to-side and open the five hole, but Sauer snapped his legs shut at the last minute and snatched up the puck with his glove hand on the ice.
“Billy Sauer’s save gave us momentum even though the score was tied,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We’ve also seen enough shootouts on television to know that goalies have the advantage.”
The stop might not have put any points on the board, but it meant more than any tally that was scored Friday. For Sauer, a young goaltender who has struggled at times in the Michigan net, it was the kind of play that can start a playoff hot streak. And for the Wolverines, it was an emphatic statement that they could withstand anything the Spartans could throw at them.
“That penalty shot gave us a ton of momentum and confidence in ourselves and in Billy to turn the game around,” said T.J. Hensick.
After the huge stop, Michigan stole the momentum and unleashed an offensive onslaught in the second period, striking for three unanswered goals in the middle frame.
Freshman Chris Summers opened the scoring, sneaking behind the MSU defense as a puck was deflected from center ice right onto his stick at the blue line in stride. The speedy freshman broke in on goaltender Jeff Lerg, who swung his right pad around to stop the puck, but the rubber somehow trickled up over his pad and into the net.
Just 1:04 later, the Wolverines doubled their lead on a gorgeously executed two-on-one. Hensick waited until the absolute last second before hitting Kevin Porter on the left post for a nearly effortless tap-in.
“T.J. and I have done this a million times before. When he gets the puck on that side, I just skate as hard as I can to the back door, and usually he’s able to bank one into the net off my stick,” said Porter.
Porter struck again at 15:47 of the middle stanza to make it 3-0 in favor of the Wolverines. This time, the junior sniper stuck with a broken play, picking up a loose puck in the slot and sliding it along the ice just inside the right post.
“We’re a team that can score goals, but it was really nice to see us score goals on our best chances,” said Berenson.
MSU mounted a mild comeback after a Jim McKenzie tally made the score 3-1, but Michigan put the game away by capitalizing on yet another Spartan miscue. Andrew Cogliano collected an errant breakout pass and fed Chad Kolarik, who ripped a wrist shot under the crossbar for a 4-1 lead with 5:33 left to play.
The Spartans’ Tim Kennedy bounced back with his own wrist shot past Sauer from the low slot to make it a respectable 4-2, but Hensick had the last laugh, sliding the puck into the empty net from center ice for the 5-2 final.
The Abdelkader play was controversial for more than just the resulting penalty shot. When he was hauled down, his momentum carried him, along with the puck, through Sauer and into the net. The play presumably could have resulted in a goal for Michigan State, but, in the alternative, the Spartans were awarded a penalty shot.
From the MSU perspective, it was the second goal of the night that should have been on the board. In the opening minutes of the game, Jay Sprague was initially credited with a goal that seemed to sneak just inside the left post, but after video replay the goal was disallowed as it was clear, at least from the overhead angle, that the puck caromed directly off the post.
There was even a third controversial play in which Sauer covered the puck with his upper body extended over the goal line after fumbling a Tim Kennedy shot from the bottom of the right circle.
“We probably had a couple goals that weren’t counted, but those are the breaks of the game,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
Still, all the bad fortune in the world could not erase the plain fact that Michigan was ready and able to capitalize on every mistake made by the Spartans.
“Mental errors cost us three goals in the second period and one in the third period. You can’t give Michigan odd-man rushes. They’ve got a lot of guys that put the puck in the net when you turn it over,” said Abdelkader.
The Spartans, normally known for their defensive play, made bad decisions with the puck, especially trying to carry the puck up the middle of the ice instead of making the safe play along the boards. More than just bad breakouts, MSU forwards failed to backcheck effectively, and chasing the world-class speed of the Wolverines is not a position in which any team wants to be.
“I want to make sure that some people are accountable for costing us goals,” said Comley. “I told them to turn their cell phones off and put them in their hip pockets because right now they’re going to talk to me.”
When MSU was able to sustain pressure in the Wolverine zone, Billy Sauer was up to the task. Despite allowing two late goals in which he was basically left out to dry, Sauer finished the night with 18 stops on 20 shots. More importantly, he showed the ability to make the biggest stop on the biggest stage.
Jeff Lerg, last season’s CCHA tournament MVP, played well despite the defensive breakdowns, making 16 saves in the losing effort.
The path to the NCAA tournament was made very clear for Michigan, though the Wolverines are by all accounts in the field already, beating Notre Dame in Saturday evening’s championship game makes them a stone-cold lock with an automatic bid.
However, things are significantly different for the Spartans, who will play in a critical tilt with Lake Superior tomorrow afternoon.
“I told the guys to sit tight in the locker room and wait until I got back from the press conference because this is a disappointing loss but our season is not over,” said Comley. “If we win tomorrow, we will be in the national tournament for sure, so we need to play the consolation game like it’s the biggest game of the year.”
The Spartans will have their chance to all but wrap up an NCAA bid when they face Lake Superior at 3:30 in Detroit’s famed Joe Louis Arena. Michigan faces top-ranked Notre Dame in the 7:05 nightcap for the right to hoist its banner up in the JLA rafters.