GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — With a 5-1 victory over Boston University, Michigan State proved that defensive-minded hockey doesn’t always mean low-scoring hockey.
“We’re only characterized as a defensive team because we don’t score a lot of goals,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley. “The only defensive nature of our team is to keep the numbers even. We’ve struggled to score, but we have people who can score.”
An opportunistic Spartan offense capitalized on several Terrier defensive lapses in a three-goal second period that put things out of reach for BU.
“The three goals we [gave] up are just breakdowns, individual breakdowns of somebody not covering their guy,” said BU head coach Jack Parker.
“First one, the defenseman just lets the guy go right in front of our goalie and tip it in, a guy he had to begin with. Then, off the faceoff, we went and covered a guy and let him go right by us, picked up a rebound and scored.
“Then a forward chased one of their guys behind the net and let his man close for the fourth goal, which was the killer, obviously.”
Earlier in the week, Parker cautioned the media that BU was its own worst enemy, and unfortunately the veteran coach could not have been closer to the truth.
“They get a bunch of goals right on top of John [Curry], and we just disintegrated in the second period,” said Parker. “Our level of play and enthusiasm and the way we played in the first, and then we [allowed] that goal in the second, and I don’t know if it was our lack of confidence in ourselves, we seem to have lost that, we seemed to get back on our heels.”
Although the Spartans have struggled to find the killer instinct this season, Daniel Vukovic’s goal to make it 4-1 at 17:19 of the second period was the proverbial dagger to the heart. Vukovic, normally a stay-at-home defenseman, has really come along offensively as the season progressed.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said Comley. “I don’t know if he went two years without scoring, and now he’s got like seven goals since Christmas, I think. He put a great shot on goal. He’s always had talent, he’s just taken this long, maybe, to settle in and make some good things happen.”
Things looked great for the Terriers in the first 10 minutes of the game, as they surged out of the gates and had MSU pinned in its own end for long stretches of time, creating several strong scoring opportunities.
“What goes through your mind very honestly is, ‘Oh, boy. Here they come,’” said Comley. “And they were roaring at us, so what you’re wondering is now, can you react to it? At times this year we have reacted to it well, and at other times we haven’t, to be honest with you.”
Just over five minutes into the game, Terrier Jason Lawrence won a draw and slipped the puck to Kenny Roche, who unleashed a wrister from the top of the left circle that clanked off the crossbar.
Instead of feeling discouraged, the Terriers turned the pressure up to the next level. Just a minute later, junior forward Ryan Weston finally beat goaltender Jeff Lerg with a tremendous skill play. Skating around the right post, Weston got an initial shot on net and then batted his own rebound out of the air for the early 1-0 lead.
“I’m feeling pretty good, the way we’re playing in the first period. I thought my team was playing very, very well,” Parker said.
But a fortunate carom off the glass behind the BU net completely turned the momentum in favor of the Spartans. With MSU on the power play, a Terrier defenseman attempted to ring the puck along the glass and out of the zone, but the rubber caught a seam in the glass and bounced directly onto Tim Kennedy’s stick. BU netminder John Curry made an initial save, but was out of position for Kennedy’s backhanded rebound.
“We did everything right and it goes off the stantion and just shot the puck back to him,” said Parker. “You can’t help that; that’s just a bad bounce for us.”
It was all Spartans from that moment through the rest of the game.
A pair of Tims paced MSU. Kennedy added an assist to his first period goal, and fellow sophomore Tim Crowder notched a pair of goals for the Spartans. The duo combined for the game-winner just 1:11 into the middle frame.
Defenseman Tyler Howells sent Crowder down the right boards, and the lanky winger fired a long shot on Curry, who kicked the puck up the left dashers. Kennedy raced up the left wall and fired the rebound back to Crowder, who was racing to the backdoor for an easy tap-in goal.
Jeff Lerg had a better night than John Curry in a battle of top-notch goaltenders, making 27 stops on 28 shots and frustrating a Terrier offense that has struggled to score all season long. Although Lerg was strong in net, much of the credit should go to his defensive corps, which seemed to tie up every BU stick and chase down every rebound that its goaltender allowed.
Despite BU’s struggles in its own end, Curry could not be faulted for the loss. The senior netminder made several spectacular saves on the evening, none bigger than a breakaway stop on Justin Abdelkader that Curry just made look effortless.
Still, Curry was disappointed with his own play in his last college game, allowing five goals on 28 shots. “I just didn’t make the stops we needed to keep it close,” he said.
For the Terriers, tonight’s game marked the last chapter of a season that could be described best with one word: inconsistency.
“We had a few chances in the second period, but in general, it was what we’ve been a lot this year, inconsistent,” said Parker. “If we could have played anywhere near as well as we played in the first period in the next two, we would have had a chance to win that game.”
While senior captain Sean Sullivan was clearly disappointed in the way his team played, he was visibly shaken when he realized that he would be sharing a locker room with his teammates and coaches for the last time.
“That’s 25 of my best friends,” said Sullivan. “With how hard we worked in the summer, we feel that we deserve better. But it’s been a privilege to put on the scarlet and white and I’ve met some unbelievable people here. It’s been the best four years of my life.”
On the other bench, Comley was excited for the opportunity to face a very sound Notre Dame team with a chance to advance to the Frozen Four in St. Louis on the line.
“We’re happy to be playing in [Saturday's game]. I’m sure Notre Dame’s happy to be playing in it. I thought the Huntsville kids did a great job. What an exciting hockey game and battle, the goaltender played outstanding, but I think we saw the talent of Notre Dame, too. They were very patient, they knew they were controlling play, and I think they believed totally that they would score.”
The puck drops Saturday night at 8:30 p.m.