EAST LANSING, Mich. — When two schools have never faced each other before in a sport, you never know what you are going to get come game time.
Unfortunately for the struggling Mercyhurst Lakers, this first-time meeting happened to be against the defending national champions on their own ice, and they weren’t going to get their second win of the season against Michigan State tonight.
The Spartans dominated the game from the start, doubling up the Lakers through the first two periods to take a 4-2 lead on the way to a 6-2 win. With the victory, Michigan State improved to 7-1-0 while Mercyhurst dropped to 1-7-1.
The Spartans have now won seven straight games for the first time under Coach Rick Comley.
“I thought we had a lot of real good shots,” Comley said. “We had a chance for a bunch of goals. We had good possession, we did some good things. Right now, it’s a very unselfish team.”
The first period was a stalemate for almost nine minutes, as Michigan State dominated the action but couldn’t get the puck in the net. However, at 8:48, sophomore defenseman Ryan Turek ripped a slap shot from the top right zone, and junior center Justin Abdelkader deflected the puck into the net past Mercyhurst freshman goalie Ryan Zapolski.
“Tonight the guys were passing the puck really well,” said junior left wing Tim Kennedy, who scored two goals. “We could have had ten on him (Zapolski), but he made some really great saves that kept them in the game early. We got a few on him late.”
The Spartans added to the first-period lead at 14:29 when freshman left winger Corey Tropp found himself in front of the net with the puck after an odd ricochet. Even with a defender body-checking him, Tropp slipped the puck past Zapolski for the 2-0 lead over the Lakers.
The Spartans killed a power play for Mercyhurst soon thereafter, with junior goaltender Jeff Lerg providing some key saves, and the game was effectively decided by the end of the first period. Overall, MSU outshot the Lakers 13-9 in the first period, but Mercyhurst Coach Rick Gotkin thought the game was actually closer than the score indicated.
“I don’t think we played that bad in the first period,” said Gotkin. “We were hoping to come out of that first period up by a goal, at least tied. I always say that ‘come-from-behind’ hockey is losing hockey.”
Mercyhurst had a great chance early in the second period to get back into the game when the Spartans picked up two penalties, the second a rather silly slashing penalty on Abdelkader. However, Lerg came up big again during the resulting 5-on-3, and Michigan State retained the two-goal advantage. For the game, Lerg finished with 22 saves.
“We had some looks,” said Gotkin. “Jeff doesn’t give you a lot of net to shoot at. He gives it to you and then he takes it away. We just didn’t put the puck in the net.”
The Spartans added their own power play goal a few minutes later. Kennedy netted a goal for the sixth straight game, this one with an assist from Abdelkader, putting the Spartans up 3-0.
However, Mercyhurst fought back with a great put-back goal by sophomore left wing Neil Graham off a rebound of a shot from freshman center Scott Pitt to get their first goal of the night.
“They keep you honest, and I like that,” said Comley. “They come at you with speed, but we didn’t give up many odd-man rushes, either. We turned it over too much, and then we’d have to race back because they have that quick attack.”
Michigan State responded within a minute, however, once again killing the Mercyhurst attempt at a rally. Senior center Bryan Lerg got his third goal of the season, assisted by junior left wing Matt Schepke and sophomore defenseman Mike Ratchuk.
Even though the Lakers got a second goal towards the end of the second period, the Spartans were able to secure the win by continuing to play a strong and complete game through the final period. Adding injury to insult, Kennedy added a pretty breakaway, short-handed goal, his eighth on the season, in the third period to make the score 5-2. Holding on to the puck until Zapolski committed, the Spartans’ assistant captain easily scored.
“We felt really good going into that power play,” said Gotkin. “That short-handed goal really was the goal that broke the camel’s back. You have to give credit to Michigan State. They have a great team; they’re well-coached. You don’t win national championships by accident.”
Schepke added the last goal for the Spartans, and overall, MSU out-shot Mercyhurst 40-24 and won the face-off battle (40-34). However, Comley was full of praise for the Lakers, despite their slow start to the season.
“I like their team,” he said. “They must have had a really bad start. They skate well, their goaltender, I know he’s not their number one kid, but he played very well and made a lot of really good saves. If they get the puck in the net, then they’re going to make it tough for you.”
The two teams meet again on Saturday night in East Lansing, with the puck dropping at 7 p.m.