EAST LANSING, Mich. — Even for an exhibition game, the Michigan State Spartans wasted little time getting ready to defend their NCAA championship from last spring, serving notice that they don’t intend to go the same route as the previous two NCAA titlists.
Playing solid, if unspectacular, hockey from start to finish, the Spartans defeated the University of Windsor Lancers, 6-0, in front of 3,128 fans at Munn Arena. Fully aware that Denver (2005) and Wisconsin (2006) didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament as defending champions and fighting off the potential malaise from their own championship, the Spartans dominated every aspect of the game against the visiting Canadian squad.
Yet they know there’s more work to be done.
“It’s a 40-game season and then playoffs,” said Michigan State head coach Rick Comley. “So it’s a process. I’m pleased we got to play a game before Saturday.”
“We got better every period,” added senior defenseman and newly-named alternate captain Daniel Vukovic. “It’s a steppingstone. Saturday’s going to be the real test.”
Saturday, Michigan State kicks off the official defense of the national championship, traveling to face North Dakota in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, in Grand Forks, N.D. The Spartans won the last meeting between the two teams, in October 2005, but the Sioux lead the all-time series, 61-35-2.
“It’s an honor to play in the Hall of Fame Game,” Comley said. “I think it’s a real good, early wake-up test. They’ll all be excited.”
In tonight’s warm-up for the season opener, Michigan State got on the board early, at 5:31 in the first period, with an all-freshman scoring combination: right wing Dustin Gazely took a clean pass in the front left of the zone from center Joey Shean to beat Windsor freshman goaltender Jim Watt with a blistering, point-blank slapshot.
Michigan State had been controlling the puck deep in the Lancers’ zone rather easily — albeit without scoring success — before tallying the goal. But there would be plenty more scoring to come for the Spartans, who kept the pressure on Watt and backup freshman Keaton Hartigan all night with 48 shots on goal.
Later in the first period, MSU junior defenseman Brandon Gentile scored on a hard one-timer from above the left circle on a power play, assisted by a fellow blueliner, sophomore Ryan Turek. The Lancers had just killed 20 seconds of five-on-three, but could not escape eventual damage as Gentile made it 2-0 Spartans at 17:50 of the first.
For the game, the Spartans had 37 more shots on goal than the Lancers (48-11), while also holding Windsor to zero shots in the third period — a dominating finish for the Spartans as they cruised to the win with three goals in the third period, the last two by freshman right wing Corey Tropp.
Michigan State junior goaltender Jeff Lerg picked up right where he left off last season. He was his usual steady self in the shutout effort, blanking the Lancers — including a suffocating snuff of a breakaway for Windsor at 5:50 of the second period, on which he eliminated any possible shot at the net with his positioning and made it clear there would be no scoring tonight for the Lancers.
“Jeff didn’t have much action, but he had a great save on the breakaway and some good glove saves,” said Comley.
“He came up big when we needed him to,” added Vukovic, who tallied two power-play points (one goal, one assist) on the night.
Overall, the Spartans looked solid, although there was a little opening rust in the passing game and special teams. That could be expected for the first game action of the year, but by the last period, the Spartans were firing on all cylinders — scoring on pretty passes and excellent finishes.
“We did some things good, and we did some things bad,” said Comley. “I’m sure North Dakota isn’t at their peak, either. It’ll be a heck of a game.”
Windsor head coach Pete Belliveau was unavailable for comment after the game.