ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The storyline going into the game was a classic.
The contest was set to be a battle between the nation’s No 1 team, Michigan, against their top rival, sixth ranked and defending national champion Michigan State in one of the fiercest rivalries in college hockey.
But goaltenders Jeff Lerg and Billy Sauer stole the show.
Michigan State’s Lerg recorded his eighth career shutout, making 26 saves and extending his scoreless streak to over 164 minutes, backstopping the Spartans to a 1-0 win over the Wolverines Friday night at Yost Ice Arena.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling coming here into this building,” said Lerg of the victory. “It’s especially nice for the seniors who haven’t won here (at Yost).”
“They’re a skilled team, a fast skating team,” said Lerg of Michigan. “Tonight, they weren’t able to get the puck where they wanted and set up plays like they wanted. Our defensemen did a great job, too, keeping them to the outside. Our defensemen did a great job of reading passes.”
For his part, Michigan’s Sauer turned away 27 Michigan State shots, holding Michigan in the game while his teammates furiously battled unsuccessfully to tie the game.
“I thought it was a really good game,” said Michigan State Head Coach Rick Comley. “I wanted to see how we’d react; how we’d handle their speed.”
“Sauer kept them in the game for about the first 30 minutes,” continued Comley. “Their power play got them going at the end of the second and then Jeff (Lerg) came up big after that. It was a wild third period. It was a fun hockey game.”
Ironically, the game’s only goal came off the stick of a Michigan player.
With the Spartans on a power play late in the first period, Michigan defenseman Mark Mitera fired a goalmouth scramble clearing attempt into the back of his own net at 16:33 of the period. Michigan State forward Bryan Lerg was credited with the goal.
“The goals can be ugly,” said Michigan Head Coach Red Berenson. “It doesn’t really matter. That’s hockey. They’re a good team and we knew that they were a good team. It was a good game for us to play. That’s NCAA hockey right there. It was good for our team to go through this and we’ll see if we can rebound tomorrow night.”
Once they possessed the lead, the Spartans played a classic road game, taking that early advantage and playing stifling team defense to hold Michigan off the board.
“I kept urging them to play,” said Comley. “I didn’t want to lay back. For a 1-0 game, sometimes you think not much is going on, but there were a lot of good chances at both ends. You have to respect their speed and talent. If you don’t come back and fill the middle, they’re going to get some scoring chances on you.”
“Obviously, they came in and played a strong game on the road,” said Berenson. “We knew the power play would be a factor and it was. You never know how these games are going to go, but look at the last 20 games. There are probably not more than a handful of goals that separate the winning and losing teams. We can’t be satisfied with a one-goal game. I thought Billy Sauer had to have a good game to keep it close.”
The victory pulled Michigan State (17-5-4, 13-2-2 CCHA) within two points of Michigan (22-3-0, 15-2-0 CCHA) in the CCHA standings, a margin the Spartans will attempt to close completely when the two conference powers meet in Saturday night’s re-match at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing.
“We are a young team,” said Michigan assistant captain Chad Kolarik. “This was the first real adversity we have faced all year. So, some of the guys were upset and they let it get to them. But, we will stick together. The only way we are going to win games is if we play as a team.”
“I think we’ll see the very same thing tomorrow; maybe a few more goals,” said Comley of the Saturday night re-match. “I think it will be wide open, intense and another good game.”