EAST LANSING, Mich. — While the NHL has a shootout to decide these tie games now, there was no such opportunity for either Michigan State or Minnesota tonight in the opener of the College Hockey Showcase.
And that’s too bad because the way both goalies played, that shootout might have given college hockey fans an endless thrill ride. Golden Gophers freshman goalie Alex Kangas made 27 saves, while Spartans junior netminder Jeff Lerg made 19 saves in a fine exhibition of glovework from start to finish.
With the 3-3 tie, No. 5 Michigan State’s record now stands at 8-3-1 overall, while No. 13 Minnesota moves to 7-5-1.
“We had a chance to win in overtime,” said Minnesota Coach Don Lucia. “They had some chances. As the game got going, it got better and better. It was the kind of game we needed. When two good teams compete and play, that’s what going to happen a lot. I am happy we were able to get away with a tie tonight.”
Minnesota took a 3-2 lead on a short-handed goal by freshman wing Mike Hoeffel, his first career goal. The trailing man on a 3-on-2 chance, he beat Michigan States Lerg to give the Golden Gophers a brief lead.
But the Spartans struck right back with their own shortie, a minute and a half later, when junior wing Tim Kennedy broke free in the middle zone with the puck and beat Kangas before plowing head first into the boards.
Just like that, it was 3-3, and the stage was set for a great finish. But while both teams had good scoring chances in overtime, neither goalie was going to lose this game late.
“I thought it was a good game,” Michigan State Coach Rick Comley said. “I thought our work got better as the game went on. We were playing from behind all night. Three times, we had to come from behind. These are the games you benefit from.”
Michigan State tied the game, 2-2, early in the third period on a goal by senior center Chris Mueller. As he crossed the zone in front of the net, he put a rebounding puck right into the net past Kangas, who was brilliant all night.
“He’s outstanding,” Comley said. “We tried to recruit him, actually. He’s very good. He’s big and fills the net. We had him a couple of times and missed the net.”
Minnesota took the first lead of the game late in the first period, when freshman defenseman Stu Bickel beat Lerg with a point blank shot from the middle of the zone for his first career goal.
Lerg actually looked very lost on the play, a rarity for the goalie who carried the Spartans to the NCAA title last year.
“We got a couple of first goals tonight, which was great to see,” Lucia said. “I thought we did a pretty solid job with our coverage five-on-five. We wanted to play hard from start to finish, and I thought we accomplished that.”
Overall, it was closely played first period, with Michigan State winning the shots-on-goal battle (11-9). The Gophers, however, got the break and took that key first period lead. However, if it was not for Kangas, the Spartans could easily have scored a few goals in the period. Kangas turned away two great scoring chances for Michigan State with key saves midway through the period.
Minnesota was without leading scorer Blake Wheeler, who was injured on Wednesday in practice. Despite this, Minnesota still held the lead after a seesaw second period, thanks to the amazing efforts of Kangas.
With 21 saves through the first two periods, he was the primary reason the Golden Gophers kept Michigan State scoreless on four power plays in the middle frame.
“Any team that skates that well, they’ll stick strongly,” Comley said. “There’s another game where power play effectiveness will probably create a win for you. We just have to keep plugging away.”
The teams did exchange goals in the second period, only two minutes apart. The Spartans tied the game when freshman wing Andrew Rowe got a puck past Kangas, even though he had the angle on a charging Rowe, but somehow the puck made it into the net.
This 1-1 tie was short lived, however, as junior defenseman R.J. Anderson blistered a shot past Lerg a few minutes later, hitting the top left corner of the goal post and getting the fortunate ricochet into the net.
Just like the first goal against him tonight, Lerg just did not seem to see this one coming.
“They’re a good team,” Lucia said. “We feel fortunate to come in here and get a tie, to be honest.”
Minnesota heads down Interstate 96 tomorrow night to play No. 2 Michigan, while Michigan State will host No. 12 Wisconsin. The Wolverines beat the Badgers, 3-2, tonight, so both the Golden Gophers and the Spartans will have their hands full in the second stage of this year’s College Hockey Showcase.