EAST LANSING, Mich. — As the partisan crowd chanted Overrated! and Little Sister! at them in the closing minutes of the game, the Michigan Wolverines had to wonder if maybe their in-state rivals have their number this year.
Clearly, no one else in the country gives them so much trouble on the ice.
The Michigan State Spartans rode dominant defense and surging offense to a big win over the No. 1 team in the country, turning back charge after charge to claim a 2-0-1 advantage in the season series between the two powerhouse hockey programs in the state of Michigan.
With the win, No. 6 Michigan State improves to 21-8-5 on the year and 17-5-3 in CCHA play. Meanwhile, the Wolverines dropped to 25-4-4 overall and 18-3-4 in conference play. Michigan still holds the first-place edge over the Spartans by three points, however.
Michigan State junior goaltender Jeff Lerg, who was nominated this week for the prestigious James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, had 31 saves in the win.
We got better as the game went on, and that was important, said Michigan State Coach Rick Comley. I was concerned about the energy and Michigans speed. But we kept coming in the third, and that was very encouraging.
Already up 2-1 in the third period with 14:35 left in the game, Michigan State added to its lead with a four-on-four goal when junior center Justin Abdelkader shot the puck from the right wing, close to the boards. Michigan junior goaltender Billy Sauer got no glove on the shot as it found the high back end of the net.
Then just 18 seconds later and still playing four-on-four, the Spartans added another goal when junior wing Tim Kennedy put in a rebound off a shot from freshman defenseman Jeff Petry. A sour night for Sauer continued as he couldnt stop the first shot or the put-back.
Just like that, a close game became a blowout home win for the defending NCAA champions, much to the delight of the crowd and their derisive chants.
We had a lot of trouble getting going, though, said Comley. We got that lead, but I didnt think we played that well until the third. I thought our kids fought, scrapped, and got back in the game. Jeff was really solid early, and thats what he had to be. And then we got some good fortune with the puck going in.
The Wolverines got a goal back with 8:15 left in the game from freshman wing Ben Winnett. But it wasnt enough to get the top-ranked Wolverines back in the game, as Michigan State senior center Bryan Lerg scored a power play goal a few minutes later to restore the three-goal lead.
This was Michigan coach Red Berensons 1,000th game as head coach of the Wolverines, and his team didnt rise to the occasion.
I thought we played well for two periods, and I thought we had the edge of scoring chances, Berenson said. No question that third goal was a backbreaker. It was not a good goal for Billy. It was not a good goal for our team. And they get another one right away.
Michigan State got on the board early in the first with a goal just 1:33 into the game. Petry scored on a zippy pass across the front of the crease, eluding Sauer and the Michigan defense. Junior center Nick Sucharsky put the puck right on Petrys stick, and he chipped it past Sauer for the big 1-0 lead.
The Spartans added a late goal in the first period to go up 2-0, when junior wing Tim Crowder took a cross-ice pass from freshman wing Andrew Rowe to beat Sauer easily. The Michigan State goal was very similar to the first score, except Crowder was about three feet further from the net than Petry had been on his goal.
And since the score came with a minute left in the period, this goal badly hurt No. 1 Michigan. They outplayed the Spartans for the entire period, outshooting their in-state rivals, 15-3. But somehow, they trailed on the scoreboard, 2-0.
It was one of those periods, Berenson said. They were good chances. Whether it was good play on their part, we have to be able to defend against them. We have to play better than that.
The Wolverines finally got on the scoreboard with 9:15 left in the second period when freshman wing Max Pacioretty scored on a power-play goal from 15 feet out in front of the net. The shot went through clean to cut the deficit to 2-1. Freshman wing Aaron Palushaj and senior center Kevin Porter nabbed assists on the special teams score.
Michigan finished the period on another power play, but they could not crack Jeff Lerg to tie the game. Again, the Wolverines outshot the Spartans, 12-6, in the period but still trailed on the scoreboard.
Michigan was playing without senior forward Chad Kolarik, who injured his hamstring last week and will be out four-to-five weeks. He is the second-leading scorer for the Wolverines with 35 points (20-15) on the season, which is also fourth-best in the nation this season.
I thought you could really tell they missed Kolarik, Comley said. You dont take a player like him, who is an All-American and Hobey finalist, and not miss him dramatically, especially on the power play. It was up to us to take advantage of him not being there.
Twenty-four penalties were called in the game, and CCHA referee Stephen McInchak called three diving penalties on Michigan State including two on Kennedy. This should make for an interesting game tomorrow night as the two teams face each other again in Detroit, as the puck drops at 7:35 pm ET at Joe Louis Arena.
We set up a barnburner for tomorrow, Comley said. Obviously, theyre going to come at us hard. They dont want to lose two to us. Theyre going to want, desperately, to get that game tomorrow.