EAST LANSING, Mich. — After losing an eight-game unbeaten streak and suffering their first loss in 2008, the defending NCAA champion Michigan State Spartans came out fired up tonight, and it showed from the first minute of play.
Scoring early in both the first and second periods, Michigan State took control of the scoreboard and rarely let up in a 4-2 victory on their home ice. One night after losing in overtime, the Spartans dominated the Mavericks to re-establish their momentum heading into the final month of conference play.
No. 5 Michigan State improves to 18-6-5 on the season, with a 14-3-3 mark in CCHA contests. Nebraska-Omaha dropped below .500 again in both full-season (12-13-3) and conference (9-10-3) play.
“I thought we did a real good job tonight; we got out to a 4-0 lead,” said Michigan State coach Rick Comley. “To their credit, they didn’t quit playing, and they’re highly dangerous. If they’d been healthy, they’d be in a lot better position than they are right now, so they’re going to be a tough team to play down the stretch for anybody.”
Junior wing Tim Crowder had four points on the night, netting a goal and three assists, as the Spartans cruised to a 4-0 lead just 25 minutes into the game. Senior center Bryan Lerg (2-1-3) and freshman wing Andrew Rowe (1-2-3) also added three points each for the Spartans.
“I think we just needed to jump on it,” Bryan Lerg said. “Not necessarily a goal in the first five minutes, but we need to get in there and hit, run it to the board. We needed to play our game. Fortunately, it worked out well. I just started popping it in, you have to give credit to Crowder, too.”
The Mavericks, trailing 4-1 entering the third period, scored 8:09 into the third period when senior center Bryan Marshall scored his 12th goal of the night, bringing his team-leading, season scoring total to 40 points. While UNO spent a lot of time in the Spartans’ zone in the period, they couldn’t dent Michigan State’s lead any further.
In fact, Mavericks’ junior wing Tomas Klempa picked up a game disqualification with 2:32 left after UNO’s frustration boiled over the tipping point. With 56.8 seconds left in the game, Michigan State junior goaltender Jeff Lerg stopped a penalty shot by Mavericks’ senior center Bill Bagron to add injury to insult.
Lerg was outstanding in the third period, making 18 saves in the final frame alone.
“Our guys didn’t roll over; our guys just kept scratching and clawing until the end,” said Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp. “From that standpoint, I think we have a lot we can build on. Obviously, we are disappointed in not getting the points, but it was a good game that set a tone for us heading down the stretch.”
Bryan Lerg got the Spartans on the board first, and early at that. Bringing the puck up from behind the net, he shoved it through UNO junior goaltender Jerad Kaufmann, literally. Just 1:09 into the game, Michigan State started to put last night’s debacle behind them.
The Spartans had a few more good chances in the period, but the Mavericks killed two penalties and significantly outshot Michigan State in the first period (14-5) to keep the score close.
“It’s tough to play against Nebraska-Omaha,” Jeff Lerg said. “They’re so fast, and they keep coming at us so hard. They put pressure on the defense all night. They’re a team that has a lot of big bodies out there, and they like to play a physical game. They dump the puck in and try to create turnovers, and they showed they can be successful doing that. I think our defense got used to it, but got worn down a little bit near the end, because UNO kept running and playing the body on them.”
Michigan State added to its lead just 1:08 into the second period when Kaufmann was drawn out of the net to the left side. Rowe was able to get the puck into the empty net for the Spartans to make the score 2-0. The defending NCAA champions scored again just 27 seconds later when Crowder got his 11th goal of the season, and the rout was on.
Bryan Lerg got his second goal of the game 4:56 into the second period, on a power play goal. UNO immediately called a timeout to regroup, suddenly down 4-0.
“Well, you are never pleased with a split,” Kemp said. “That is something you are never pleased with. You want to be greedy, especially when you win on Friday night. Then you think you can get the sweep, but every point here down the stretch is critical. There aren’t a lot of points left. In November, you have a whole season of points to get by, but when you get down here, every point is precious. We are pleased with the fact we were able to get any points here, but you always want more.”
The Mavericks finally got on the board with 1:27 left in the second period when senior wing Mick Lawrence scored on an assist from Marshall. Down 4-1, UNO had new life and appeared to score again with 57.7 seconds left in the period, but referee Kevin Hall waived the goal off and called interference on junior wing Dan Charleston instead.
This resulted in some heated banter between the Mavericks’ bench and Hall, and UNO was hit with another penalty, this one a bench minor. While Michigan State didn’t score on the five-on-three opportunity in the closing seconds, they certainly were in control of the game entering the third period.
Next up for Michigan State is a road series next weekend against CCHA in-state foe Northern Michigan, while Nebraska-Omaha hosts conference opponent Ohio State for two games.