EAST LANSING, Mich. — Certainly, this was a game that lived up to the hype.
For 60 minutes, the No. 1 Miami RedHawks and the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans battled like top-echelon teams, going back and forth on the ice and rarely letting the other get the upper hand for too long. In the end, however, the RedHawks pulled away in the final period for the hard-fought 4-2 win in the teams’ first meeting of the 2007-08 season.
With the win, Miami improves to 10-1-0 overall, 8-1-0 in CCHA conference play. The Spartans dropped to 8-2-0 overall and 4-1-0 in the conference, while watching their eight-game win streak go up in smoke.
“It was an exciting game,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi. “It was a battle out there for both teams. They missed open nets, we missed open nets. In the end, we got a bounce there. In a game like that, that’s probably what the difference is: one bounce.”
Miami took a 3-2 lead on that one bounce very early in the third period when senior wing Nathan Davis deflected a shot by junior defenseman Alec Martinez past MSU junior goaltender Jeff Lerg. The Spartans looked around in confusion as the horn sounded, as if they weren’t quite sure what had happened.
“I was just trying to get a good screen and hopefully look for a rebound,” said Davis. “I don’t know if hit my stick or my leg, but it went in. Coach is talking about ‘first minute, last minute’ are huge emotional minutes and really set the tone. Any time you can get some energy going early in the period, it’s always a good thing. We were lucky enough to get the goal.”
That turned out to be the game-winner, as the two teams fought for the next 19 minutes like championship contenders. Miami junior wing Justin Mercier sealed it with an empty-netter in the final minute. In the end, No. 1 proved itself on the road over the defending national champions, killing eight Spartans power plays along the way.
This was the first time all season Michigan State didn’t score a special teams goal.
“We had some kids struggle all night,” Michigan State Coach Rick Comley said. “That third (goal) was a tough one. They’re the best we’ve played by far. At the end of the game, they just toyed with us. We were tired, and they wore us out tonight.”
There was playoff intensity on the ice from the moment the puck dropped. And Miami was ready to take advantage with an early power play goal at 1:45, as junior wing Brian Kaufman, camped out on the left side of the net, took a pretty pass from freshman center Carter Camper across the ice and easily knocked it home past Lerg for the early 1-0 lead.
“[Scoring early] gives you an opportunity to play your game and not get out of your game,” Blasi said. “I think that was real good, especially when you’re on the road, to score early and get up. That’s a good start, for sure.”
The RedHawks definitely had more jump in the first frame, however, dominating the flow of the game: most of the action took place in Miami’s offensive zone, especially on the Spartans’ last power play when the RedHawks kept the puck away from Michigan State for the latter half of the penalty. While Lerg gave up the one power play goal early, Miami never let up; without some outstanding saves in dense traffic, the Spartans could have been behind by a lot more after the first 20 minutes.
The Spartans started the second period on a power play, thanks to a last-second penalty in the first period. But Miami killed that penalty, too, looking faster and more skilled with the stick than Michigan State. In fact, the RedHawks almost got a second goal at 13:05 in the second, but after lengthy a replay review, officials cited goalie interference and disallowed the goal.
The reversal was exactly what the Spartans needed, as they responded quickly with their first goal of the night. Junior wing Tim Kennedy scored his NCAA-leading 10th goal, tying the game while working in heavy traffic in front of the net. Sophomore defenseman Mike Ratchuk and junior center Justin Abdelkader assisted on the goal.
Not that the game needed any more drama at that point, but this change in momentum seemed to wake up both Michigan State and its home crowd, as the game tightened up considerably after Kennedy’s game-tying goal. At one point, the intensity boiled over as a fight broke out in front of the Spartan net, resulting in game misconducts for both Ratchuk and Miami sophomore Jarod Palmer and giving Miami a key power play.
The RedHawks converted on a crazy ricochet off the boards behind the net, catching Lerg flat-footed. A hard slapshot from senior defenseman Mitch Ganzak missed the net wide right, but the puck came directly back out to Mercier. He was able to get the puck past Lerg before the MSU goaltender knew what had happened, giving Miami a 2-1 lead at with five-and-a-half minutes left in the period.
But the Spartans fought back at with 1:58 left in the period with a 2-on-1 scoring chance, as freshman wing Corey Tropp put a pinpoint shot past Miami junior goaltender Jeff Zatkoff from the short left flat, going across the net into the far, high corner. Tropp eschewed the conventional pass on the play, and it paid off as MSU was able to tie the game late in the period.
“You can see that if we play, we’re both right there,” Comley said. “I can’t imagine that anyone’s better than what Miami is, so you have to react to that level and play. I like their team; I do think we match up well. We’ll need more people to play better tomorrow.
“They’re a lot better than North Dakota,” Comley added.
The two teams play again on Friday night in East Lansing, with the puck dropping at 7:05 p.m. ET.