ST. LOUIS — Hollywood couldn’t write an ending this good.
In one of the most dramatic endings in national championship-game history, Michigan State’s Justin Abdelkader broke a 1-1 tie with 18.9 seconds remaining and Chris Mueller added an empty-net goal with 1.7 seconds left to give the Spartans a 3-1 victory over Boston College, their first national championship since 1986 and third national title all-time.
With most thinking the game was headed to overtime, Abdelkader broke down the right-wing side and blasted a shot that beat Boston College goaltender Cory Schneider (26 saves) but hit the post. After the puck was worked back to the point and then back behind the net to Spartan forward Tim Kennedy, Abdelkader found just enough space in the slot to one-time Kennedy’s pass by Schneider to send the Michigan State bench into hysteria.
“Growing up, you’re always playing street hockey and you’re always like, ‘I scored the game-winner for the national championship,’” said Abdelkader, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “Tim [Kennedy] made an incredible play. I knew once he made the cut [around BC's defender] I just had to find some space in the slot. He hit me with a perfect pass.”
The goal was one of three third-period goals for the Spartans, who trailed 1-0 entering the frame.
It easily could have been 2-0 less than five minutes into the third when Spartans goaltender Jeff Lerg (29 saves) made a highlight-reel save by robbing Brian Boyle on a two-on-one. Boyle skated shorthanded with Joe Rooney and after Rooney drew the defenseman toward him on the left-wing side, he fed Boyle with a pass at the right post. Lerg dove across the crease, getting his glove on the puck and keeping the BC lead at one.
“That was a really key part of the game,” said Boston College head coach Jerry York, whose Eagles fell short in the championship game for the second straight year. “It was a terrific save by Lerg.”
“We practice that drill everyday,” said Lerg of a daily routine in which Michigan State forwards stand at each post and make Lerg move laterally to make saves. “I told myself before the third period that I couldn’t let [BC] get one more goal and I didn’t.”
According to Spartans captain Chris Lawrence, after the save head coach Rick Comley predicted that the team would come back.
“Coach said when he made that save that we were going to score two goals to win it,” Lawrence said.
“Everybody on the bench went to their feet when that save happened,” said Comley.
With renewed energy, the Spartans needed just five more minutes before evening the game.
On a neutral-zone faceoff, Kennedy picked up a loose puck and made a quick move around Boyle. From there, he was all alone on Schneider and fired a low shot that landed just inside the left post to tie the game with 10:07 remaining. It was the first time in six power-play attempts that Michigan State was able to score and brought to life the record crowd of 19,432, many clad in Michigan State green and white.
Though the game changed for the better and ultimately the best for the Spartans in the third period, it didn’t start out well in Comley’s mind.
“They were so fast [in the first period],” said Comley of the Eagles. “I knew we couldn’t play all night at that pace.”
Comley noted that three straight BC penalties in the second settled the pace down and from there the Spartans were able to play the game they hoped to. Still, a shot by BC’s Brock Bradford that deflected off of Boyle and over the shoulder of Lerg at 6:50 of the second period had given the Eagles the 1-0 lead.
But the ability to keep the game close — whether it was with tight-checking play or solid goaltending from Lerg when needed — was ultimately what propelled the Spartans to victory.
“They’re a very patient team,” said Boyle. “They keep five guys down low, they block shots and they have a terrific goaltender.”
That patience paid off Saturday night as the Spartans were able to capture the first national title for the CCHA since 1998, when Michigan beat Boston College.
“This is a big win for Michigan State and a big win for the CCHA,” said Comley, who joined York and Ned Harkness as only the third coach to lead two different teams to national championships (Northern Michigan, 1991). “College hockey is a difficult battlefield right now. So it’s great to win it for the league.”
For the Eagles, who lost to Wisconsin, 2-1, in last year’s national title game, the ending was frustrating and almost hard to put into words.
“It felt different this year,” said Boyle, whose team entered Saturday riding a 13-game winning streak. “We were pretty confident and weren’t too cocky. We thought if we stuck to [playing with confidence], good things would happen, but obviously that wasn’t the case.”