EAST LANSING, Mich. — Both sixth ranked Notre Dame and No. 10 Michigan State came into tonight’s game with their eyes on the tight CCHA standings, but there was something else lingering in the air, too: the 2007 NCAA Midwest Regional Final.
In their first meeting since last March when the Spartans knocked out the then-No. 1 Fighting Irish on the way to the NCAA championship victory, the two rivals played a tight, even contest, going head-to-head in every way right until the end.
However, it was Michigan State that scored with 1:57 left on a mad scramble in front of the net. Last season’s Frozen Four MVP Justin Abdelkader got credit for the goal, although it appeared on TV replays that Notre Dame junior goaltender Jordan Pearce may have pushed the goal into the net.
No matter what actually happened in the crease, the Spartans’ win moved them to 14-5-3 on the season overall, while improving their CCHA record to 10-2-1. The Fighting Irish dropped to 18-7-0, including an 11-4-0 record in conference play.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” said Michigan State junior goalie Jeff Lerg. “For us to score that late goal and hold on was huge. It was a really good game, obviously, with all of the back-and-forth. Fortunately for us, Abs (Justin Abdelkader) stepped up and got one.”
For the first 10 minutes of the third period, it looked like nothing could be settled in regulation time. When Pearce flat-out stoned Michigan State junior wing Matt Schepke on a net charge, the score looked to remain fixed at 1-1 until overtime.
Enter Abdelkader, with his late-game heroics, just like the NCAA championship game last year when he scored with 19 seconds left to help the Spartans beat Boston College.
After the game-winning goal, Notre Dame furiously tried to get the equalizer past Michigan State junior goaltender Jeff Lerg, but like he did all night, the Spartans’ assistant captain shut the door on the Fighting Irish when it mattered most.
Junior center Nick Sucharski added an empty-netter for the final score.
“This is our best game, I think,” said Michigan State Coach Rick Comley. “So many games, we have gone into with that expectation that we are going to win, by everybody. This one, it was a tossup going in, and I think it had good emotion.”
“I respect (Notre Dame Coach) Jeff (Jackson) so much, because he has that team ready,” Comley added. “You could tell that there was a lot of matching going on, from both sides. So, you are going to get quality play with good players. It was physical, but not stupid.”
Yet for Notre Dame, it was another reminder of last season’s close NCAA loss. They played well enough to win again, but the Spartans denied them the chance with timely goals and great goaltending.
“We had our chances, but we’re just not finishing,” Jackson said. “We’ve got guys that can finish; they just tense up around the net sometimes. It’s frustrating, but that’s one thing I can’t coach.”
The Spartans scored the game’s first goal in the second period. Schepke netted a crazy goal early in the period, when from the right corner, he put the puck down the goal line right to the net. It then ricocheted off Irish junior goaltender Jordan Pearce into the net.
It wasn’t the proverbial “overtime shot on goal,” but the result had the same effect: huge momentum shift for the Spartans. But Michigan State couldn’t capitalize on the energy, as Pearce kept stoning them until his teammates could establish their own rhythm.
They did so on another strange sequence, where sophomore center Kevin Deeth got credit for the tying goal as Spartans were all over the ice in the crease. With Lerg out of position, Abdelkader was in position to “make the save”, but the puck slipped just far enough over the line to give Notre Dame the tying score.
The officials had to go to replay to confirm the score, and after that, it was a tie game.
“It’s two good teams, so that is going to happen,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be up-and-down and back-and-forth just because you’ve got two good teams that respond to situations like that. Whether it’s a big penalty kill or a big save, you can get momentum from that.”
Prior to the hard-fought second period, the first 20 minutes saw a scoreless battle with both goalies making great saves and amazing plays. While Michigan State had the edge early in shots on goal, Notre Dame battled back by the end of the period to get the edge in that category, 14-8.
Four of those shots came on a strong power play for the Irish, where the Spartans were very fortunate to kill the two-minute special teams opportunity. Michigan State players were blocking shots up front, and Lerg was smothering pucks left and right.
Notre Dame was just frustrated at that point.
“(Lerg) was really good, probably his most consistent from start to finish,” Comley said. “He has played pretty darn well for us, but there have been some pucks going in that are weird. Tonight they had some chances in the first that they couldn’t get a handle on. He made a couple really good saves.”
Now both teams have the day off tomorrow before facing each other again on Sunday in South Bend, IN. Game time is 4:05 p.m. ET. The Irish will have another shot at downing the Spartans, have now won three straight against Notre Dame and eight of the last nine overall.
“I would say (the rivalry) is almost as big as Michigan,” Abdelkader said. “They came out gunning for us. They were kind of frustrated with how things ended last season, and they kind of came with a chip on their shoulder.
“With what happened last year, they think they should have beaten us, and they thought they should have won it all,” he added. “So, they came with a chip on their shoulder. I think we did too; we wanted to prove that we weren’t a push-over, and what happened last year wasn’t a fluke. So that was big for us.”