DETROIT — Taking a page out of Michigan State’s playbook, Michigan jumped to a three-goal first period lead and held off a second period comeback attempt to clinch a top two CCHA finish with their 5-2 victory over the Spartans on Saturday night at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena in front of a sellout crowd of 20,066.
Michigan State scored first in two of the three previous contests between the two teams this season and used those early leads to help them remain undefeated against the top-ranked Wolverines coming into Saturday night’s contest.
Only 24 hours earlier, Michigan State netminder Jeff Lerg held the Wolverines to only one goal, despite an onslaught of shots over the first two periods, and his teammates made their early lead stand up, pulling away to a 5-2 victory of their own.
The Wolverines’ win boosts them to 42 points in the battle for first place in the CCHA, three points ahead of Miami with each team down to their final two games of conference play next weekend.
“There’s not much to choose between these two teams,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It’s whoever gets the jump.”
“They came out quick,” concurred Michigan State coach Rick Comley. “They were better than us in the first period.”
Berenson attributed the win to an attitude adjustment from one night to the next by his Wolverines.
“I don’t think they took it serious enough,” said Berenson of his team’s Friday night loss. “Maybe I take it too seriously. I tried to get them on the same page as me (tonight).”
The Wolverines had to believe their fortunes against the rival Spartans were changing when snakebitten forward Tim Miller’s first goal of the season put the Wolverines ahead early in the first period.
Before the stanza was over, Michigan had built a 3-0 lead on three goals literally from the same spot on the ice, a few feet to Lerg’s right.
Wolverines’ defenseman Chris Summers flew down the left wing and banked a shot off Lerg that bounced out to Miller, who buried the puck over Lerg’s glove at 5:20 to open the scoring.
At 10:38, Carl Hagelin stripped the puck from a Spartans’ defender behind the net and flipped the disc in front, where Aaron Palushaj snapped it by Lerg to extend Michigan’s lead to two.
With only 20 seconds left in the initial period, Mark Mitera’s shot from the left point rebounded off Lerg to the Wolverines’ magic spot on the ice and Brandon Naurato swatted it by Lerg for a power-play marker and a 3-0 Michigan lead.
Momentum shifted to Michigan State midway through the second period as the Spartans closed the gap to just a goal before Max Pacioretty notched a last minute tally to give the Wolverines a little breathing room, 4-2.
Chris Mueller fueled the Michigan State momentum machine when he spun around in the high slot and whipped a shot by Michigan netminder Billy Sauer to get the Spartans on the board at 8:53 of the second.
Capitalizing on the power play four minutes later, the Spartans drew within one on Tim Kennedy’s bullet past Sauer at 12:14.
For the second straight period, the Wolverines potted a last minute score when Pacioretty deflected a Mitera shot from the left point by Lerg with only 35 seconds left in the period to mute the Spartan momentum.
Miller’s second goal of the evening into an empty net capped a solid defensive third period for Michigan
“We played with more energy and focus,” said Berenson of the final period. “We knew momentum had been going against us.”
Michigan State (21-9-5, 17-6-3 CCHA) finishes conference play next weekend with a home-and-home set against Bowling Green while the Wolverines (26-4-4, 19-3-4 CCHA) split home games with Ferris State as they search for the additional points to claim the conference top spot.