GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Notre Dame may have been the stingiest team in the country, but the Michigan State Spartans out-defensed the Fighting Irish to upset the No. 1 seed, 2-1, and advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2001.
“A great win, obviously,” said head coach Rick Comley, who last advanced to the NCAA semifinals in 1991 as head coach of Northern Michigan.
“We’ve a tendency to get ahead and give up leads,” said Comley, “and you never know what’s going to happen. That one went right down to the wire, so obviously we’re very, very thrilled to be going to St. Louis.”
Chris Mueller and Tim Kennedy had power-play goals for the Spartans, while Jeff Lerg made 19 saves. Lerg, who played opposite the top two goaltenders in the country this weekend in Boston University’s John Curry and Notre Dame’s David Brown, stopped 46 shots in the two Midwest regional wins and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player for his effort.
“I knew that when I’m on my game, I can be as good as anyone in the country,” said Lerg. “I know that if I play my game and keep things simple, if I make all the saves I’m supposed to plus two or three big ones, we’d get the win.
“I felt confident. I knew that they were two very good goalies and that I couldn’t let any weak ones in or else they’d shut the door down at the other end and it’d be a battle to get back in the game.”
Both Lerg and Brown were impressive in the scoreless first period, especially midway through when the teams began to loosen up and creating scoring chances.
At 9:47, Irish freshman Kevin Deeth — who has 17 goals this season — stole the puck in front of the Spartan net, turned, waited patiently for Lerg to commit out in front of the goalmouth, then tried to walk the puck around and behind Lerg’s stick side, but somehow the goaltender got his stick on the puck and smothered it, ending up face down with his head pointed toward the cage and his skates towards center ice.
Then on a breakaway two minutes later at the other end, Kennedy drew Brown right then shuffled left to linemate Crowder, who fired at a seemingly open net — but somehow Brown recovered, went spread-eagle, kicked out his right leg and made the save on Crowder’s point-blank shot from the just outside the crease to preserve the scoreless tie.
In the second period, a combination of smothering defense — the Irish had three shots in the middle frame — and a waved-off MSU goal helped to turn the momentum the Spartan way for good.
At 4:34, a Jim McKenzie goal was overturned for goaltender interference, with Justin Abdelkader bumping Brown in the crease. Kennedy fed McKenzie through his own legs to set up the shot, and McKenzie fired high over Brown’s right shoulder to find the back of the net.
But less than two minutes later, Mueller found nearly the same patch of twine, catching the rebound of Chris Snavely’s shot from the point and going high stick side on Brown to give the Spartans the 1-0 lead after two.
Spartan captain Chris Lawrence said that the way the Spartans handled goal that was called back was key to the contest.
“We reacted well to it,” said Lawrence, “coming out and getting the next one. If they would have scored five minutes after that they would have been flying high and that would have been a different game.”
Kennedy had the game-winner at 5:59 in the third, as he and the puck went into the net simultaneously. He initially tried to wrap the puck around from behind on the left side, shot, and then was plowed into the Notre Dame goal, up and over Brown, for his 17th marker of the season.
The Irish found some gas midway through the third and finally solved Lerg at 14:52 with a goal credited to Evan Rankin. Brett Blatchford took a shot that deflected up and in off of Rankin’s torso to cut the Spartan lead in half.
Each team took a penalty in the last three minutes of the game, with Notre Dame’s Garrett Regan sent to the box at 17:37 for running into Lerg while going hard to the net, and Ethan Graham called for tripping at 18:21 after pulling down Deeth on a shorthanded Irish breakaway. At Graham’s penalty, Brown headed for the bench to give the Irish a man advantage, but he returned to the net with 45.4 seconds left as Notre Dame was unable to maintain the puck in the Spartan end.
“I thought we were sharp in some ways, but not sharp in others,” said ND head coach Jeff Jackson. “Our defensive intensity was good, but our offensive intensity wasn’t what it needed to be. I think a lot of that had to do with a little extra price you’re paying around the net.
“We actually came alive a little bit in the third period, but there was just a little bit missing. I’m sure some of that had to do with a little fatigue, and credit to Michigan State, too. Their defense blocked some people out, too.”
Jackson said that the Irish, the regular-season and playoff CCHA champions, were accustomed to playing from behind, and never thought they couldn’t overcome the deficit to win the game. There were no Notre Dame players at the postgame press conference.
“We’ve responded pretty much all season long to every situation,” said Jackson. “We’ve been down two and come back and tied; we’ve been down before and come back and won games. They’re a never quit group, and that’s why they’re taking it hard right now.”
The Spartans finished 2-for-7 on the power play as the Irish took 10 penalties for 20 minutes in the contest, a stat that Jackson said can be attributed to Friday’s long double-overtime game against Alabama-Huntsville.
“That’s where a little bit of last night showed up,” said Jackson. “They were undisciplined penalties.”
As surprising as the loss might have been for the No. 1 seed, the win was just as unexpected for the Spartans, who struggled with consistency all season and went 3-4-2 in February to end the regular season. Last year, the Spartans won the CCHA championship tournament, and MSU had the best postseason showing of any CCHA team in the tournament, beating New Hampshire, 1-0, before losing to Maine, 5-4, in the East regional.
“We really had a really good team last year,” said Comley. “If David Booth hadn’t gotten hurt against Fairbanks, honest to God I think we would have been in the Frozen Four and could have won it. He played, but he was hurt.
“And then we lost those good seniors. And then when Drew [Miller] decided to leave, that really hurt. We knew that we had good seniors [this year], good kids, but our talent was in our middle group, in our sophomores and juniors, so this would not have been an expectation.
“It’s obviously a reward for a lot of hard work.”
The Spartans (24-13-3) will face Maine in NCAA semifinal action April 5 in St. Louis.
The Irish bow out after their best season in program history, with a record of 32-7-3.