EAST LANSING, Mich. — This is a game neither team will forget anytime soon, though for very different reasons.
The defending NCAA champion Michigan State Spartans continued to struggle at home, blowing a two-goal, third-period lead, while the Wisconsin Badgers got up off the mat to salvage a tie when they really needed something other than a loss.
Michigan State’s record is now 8-3-2 overall, and they have a four-game home winless streak, while Wisconsin snapped a four-game losing streak to improve to 5-6-1 overall. After not playing an overtime game all season, the Spartans now have two consecutive ties on their slate.
“I think we’re still trying to become the team we think we can become,” said Michigan State coach Rick Comley. “Obviously, we’re not there yet. I thought we worked hard, both nights. Both games were exciting. It’s a reality check a little bit right now.”
With 13:38 remaining in the game, freshman Corey Tropp and junior Matt Schepke broke in on a two-on-one chance, with Tropp headed down the left side of the ice. As the freshman broke to the middle, he put the puck right on Schepke’s stick, and the junior sidestepped Wisconsin freshman goalie Scott Gudmandson and scored easily.
Just 28 seconds later, the Spartans struck again, as senior Bryan Lerg took a pretty cross-ice pass from freshman Dustin Gazley and chipped it into the net. Lerg was on the far side of Gudmandson, and Gazley put the puck right where he needed to for the perfect assist.
They were the two prettiest goals a college hockey fan could hope to see, and Gudmandson really had no chance on either goal.
“Bryan Lerg was outstanding today,” said Comley. “We just got to get firing on all cylinders and play smart and play like we’re capable. A lot of guys played really well.”
Wisconsin managed to claw back to a one-goal deficit with 9:07 remaining when sophomore John Mitchell deflected senior Davis Drewiske’s slapper into the net, and the Badgers tied the game with 5:57 left when junior Ben Street simply beat junior goaltender Jeff Lerg with a pretty fake after taking a well-placed pass from sophomore Jamie McBain.
Just like that, Michigan State had blown its two-goal lead and a shot to salvage the homestand. Overall, Wisconsin dominated the third period, outshooting the Spartans 15-4 to forge the tie.
“It’s not the result that we wanted, but it was definitely a step in the right direction,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “This team has shown a propensity to not give up. That’s a very positive thing.”
The Spartans had a power play in the overtime period, but the quality of the ice was very poor, according to Comley, which led to literal whiffs on scoring chances by Michigan State forwards Tim Crowder and Tim Kennedy.
“I thought we had great chances, but the ice was just so bad,” Comley said. “That one that went to Crowder, I don’t know if he even touched it. It jumped right over his stick. At that point, with the ice, it’s going to be really tough. But we had plenty of chances.”
Michigan State took the lead in the first period, when Bryan Lerg put a rebound into the net off senior Daniel Vukovic’s shot. Lerg found himself with the puck almost right in front of the net, and there wasn’t much Gudmandson could do about it as the Spartans took the 1-0 lead with 7:56 left in the period.
However, Wisconsin showed its resolve by tying the score 64 seconds later when freshman defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s slap shot from the top of the zone somehow found its way through two Spartans and junior goaltender Jeff Lerg.
Two penalties in a row on the Badgers gave Michigan State a chance to jump on top again, and on the second power play, Gudmandson couldn’t wrap up a Nick Sucharski shot from the wing. Junior Matt Schepke went behind the Wisconsin goalie into the crease to poke the puck home for the 2-1 lead with 2:40 left in the period.
“We’ve talked about the stats,” Eaves said. “Somewhere between 65 and 68 percent of all teams that score first win games, but we haven’t had that luxury in a while. I thought we played a pretty decent first period, and we find ourselves down, 2-1.”
The second period saw a lot of back and forth action, but nothing significant happened until less than six seconds were left in the period. The Spartans failed on multiple attempts to clear the puck out of their defensive zone, and Wisconsin made them pay for it with a workman-like goal to tie the game at 2-2 right before the break.
Sophomore Blake Geoffrion got the goal, assisted by freshman Patrick Johnson and Drewiske. With Michigan State unable to get the puck clear, the Badgers just kept pounding and pounding, until finally the puck went in the net.
“It’s becoming a characteristic of this team,” Eaves said. “They continue to work, they continue to press through, being behind, and that’s a positive. And that’s a real healthy sign, that’s a good response from losing a game like we did last night, not playing very well.”
Giving up a goal that late in the period was just what the Spartans didn’t want, and it’s just what Wisconsin needed heading into the third period, trying to snap a four-game losing streak.
“These two teams we played are very good,” Eaves added. “Who we play is the number one measuring stick. In all parts of the game, we need to get so much better. You get to play a quality team, and that’s the biggest measuring stick.”
Next up for Michigan State is a road CCHA series at Lake Superior State next weekend, while Wisconsin plays two more games against ranked competition hosting WCHA foe No. 10 St. Cloud State.
“We’ll definitely make sure we’re focused on CCHA play,” Comley said. “We’ve played fewer league games than a lot of people, so we can’t let any of these get away. There’s a bad taste right now, and there should be.”