EAST LANSING, Mich. — They’re not sure who lost those two games against Northern Michigan in Marquette last weekend, but it certainly wasn’t tonight’s version of the Michigan State Spartans.
If the Spartans want a decent shot at repeating their NCAA success this year, they’ll need to play more like the team that took the ice Friday night, not the team that floundered about while dropping two huge games a week ago.
After dropping those two games to a sub-.500 conference foe on the road, the defending NCAA champions returned home to drop a beating on the lowly Western Michigan Broncos, shutting them out in more ways than one, 3-0. Michigan State held the Broncos scoreless on multiple power plays, while hitting Western Michigan players hard and often all night long.
With the win, Michigan State improves to 19-8-5 overall, including a 15-5-3 mark in CCHA play. Western Michigan’s tough season continues, as they drop to 7-21-3 and 3-17-2 in the conference.
Michigan State junior goaltender Jeff Lerg picked up his ninth career shutout to lead the way.
“I felt confident throughout,” Lerg said. “When my game is on, I feel confident. I felt comfortable making saves, and tonight the guys did a pretty good job getting out of the way and not tipping them. It pretty much just made my job easier. It’s an easy night if you do a lot of little things right, and that’s what happened.”
Up 1-0 but down a man, Michigan State turned the tables on the visiting Broncos with a shorthanded goal just 3:36 into the third period. After making a save, Lerg got the assist as junior wing Tim Kennedy took the puck the length of the ice and scored on a hard wrister.
Michigan State junior center Justin Abdelkader seemed to screen Western Michigan freshman goaltender Jerry Kuhn perfectly, as he threw his hands up in frustration after the horn sounded. Coming off the disappointing CCHA road losses last weekend to Northern Michigan, the Spartans surely knew how the Broncos felt.
“With our team last year, this was the same time we kind of went into a little slump,” Kennedy said. “It’s just more of our team getting going; I think we just got a little too high and we got brought back down.”
For Western Michigan, it was just another missed opportunity in a season full of disappointment. The Broncos had five power play chances in the game, but they couldn’t crack Lerg and the Michigan State defense.
The Spartans added another goal with 10:31 left in the third when Kennedy and Abdelkader assisted senior center Chris Mueller on his seventh goal of the season to put Michigan State up 3-0 and effectively end the game.
“Yeah, we definitely played a lot better defensively for sure,” said Jeff Lerg. “We worked on that all week, coverage and rushing the right way. That showed tonight. I’ve had trouble with them in the past, so it’s good to get a shutout against them; a nice win because I usually have trouble beating them.”
The game started slowly for both squads, although Michigan State certainly was controlling the pace of the game. However, the Spartans were unable to score and take advantage of their edge on the ice. While lying on his back, Kuhn absolutely robbed Mueller on a laser from the short wing with 4:56 left in the first period.
That pretty much summed up the first period for both teams until Spartans’ senior center Bryan Lerg finally beat Kuhn to the short side with a slapper. The Western Michigan goalie couldn’t glove the shot, and it trickled over the top of the mitt into the net with only 25 seconds left in the period to give the home team the 1-0 lead to end the period.
Overall, Michigan State outshot the Broncos 18-6 in the first period, while the second period was filled with penalties and the resulting missed opportunities for both teams on special teams. Michigan State maintained a comfortable edge in shots on goal, 26-17, while killing three power play opportunities for the Broncos and holding them to five shots on goal total in those three situations.
The two teams face each other again tomorrow in Kalamazoo, as Western Michigan hosts the game starting at 4:35 p.m. ET.
“Obviously, they are coming in looking for a split,” Jeff Lerg said. “They love playing us on their home ice. I think I read something last week that we’ve won twice in the past 10 years there, and that has to be our worst record at any rink I’m guessing. They’ve been waiting for this game all year. We were supposed to win tonight, and tomorrow is going to be a lot tougher. I think we are up for the challenge. We need to go out there and play a good road game.”