EAST LANSING, Mich. — Maybe it should have been Junior Night.
Last year’s NCAA Frozen Four hero, junior center Justin Abdelkader, registered a hat trick on Senior Night at Michigan State, stealing the spotlight from his senior teammates who helped lead the Spartans to the 2007 NCAA championship last year.
With a three-goal flurry in the final 2:19 of the game, including two goals by Abdelkader, the No. 6 Spartans made sure their senior class went out on top with a victory in their final regular season game at home.
Michigan State will host CCHA playoff games in two weeks, but tonight’s pre-game festivities were the official send-off for the Spartans’ seniors.
With the victory, Michigan State is now 22-9-5 with a 18-6-3 record in conference action, while Bowling Green drops to 16-17-0 overall and 13-14-0 in CCHA play.
“I thought the whole evening was fun, and good for our guys,” said Spartans’ coach Rick Comley. “They deserve it, because they have played 160 games. That is amazing. You are going deep in the playoffs for kids to play 160 games. It really says something about this group.”
The win wasn’t secured, however, until late in the game.
The Spartans scored two goals 22 seconds apart late in the third period to break a 3-3 tie and secure the win. First, Abdelkader beat Falcons’ goaltender Nick Eno from five feet away, going five-hole on a point-blank shot straight to the back of the net to score the game-winner with 2:19 left in the game.
Junior Tim Kennedy added injury to insult with his 17th goal of the season to solidify the result just 20 seconds later, before Abdelkader completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal at 19:49.
“This was big because we really wanted to get a win for the seniors,” said Abdelkader. “They’ve meant so much to the program and so much to the younger guys on the team. They’ve been a real good class, leadership wise, on and off the ice.”
However, the Falcons didn’t go down easily tonight, as they twice rallied from deficits to tie the game.
Trailing by a goal, the Falcons tied the score with 7:10 left in the game. After just missing some power play chances, Bowling Green center Todd McIlrath scored an even-strength goal to frustrate Michigan State and its fans.
“I thought we really struggled, though,” said Comley. “We were sloppy all night. They have the type of team to take advantage of that. We turned the puck over like crazy.”
For the Falcons, they know they need to win tomorrow night to get back to .500 and see what is possible for the rest of their season.
“I thought we battled extremely hard tonight for all 60 minutes of the game,” said Bowling Green Coach Scott Paluch. “Unfortunately, Michigan State just made two great plays in the game’s final three minutes, and we didn’t. I was happy, though, with the contributions we were able to get on the night from players we needed to have come through for us.”
The way the game started, however, it didn’t look like the Falcons would have a chance tonight.
The Spartans scored quickly in this game, as an all-freshman connection lit the lamp first for Michigan State. Taking a crossing pass from wing Corey Tropp, reigning CCHA Defenseman of the Week Jeff Petry hit the friendly left post with a slap shot for the 1-0 lead just 1:02 into the game.
Other than that one goal, excellent play from Eno kept the Falcons close in the first period. In fact, Bowling Green outshot Michigan State, 15-11, in the 20-minute session.
“I think we kind of learned from last year, losing to Bowling Green,” Abdelkader said. “We also knew this was important because this might be a second-round match-up in the CCHA Tournament. We wanted to send a message right away.”
Michigan State added to their lead at 6:23 in the second period when Eno stopped Tropp’s shot from the short wing but left the puck in the crease. Junior wing Matt Schepke reached from the back side of the net to tap the puck in for the two-goal advantage.
The Falcons came right back this time, however, as freshman Jacob Cepis had a breakaway opportunity slip through his stick before wrapping around the net and recovering the puck to beat Spartans’ goaltender Jeff Lerg from straightaway 15 feet out.
And after battering Lerg for almost 30 minutes with a variety of shots to no avail, Bowling Green finally found sustained success against the Sullivan Award nominee.
Bowling Green tied the game at 2-2 with 10:16 left in the second period when some crafty passing by the Falcons netted them a pretty goal. With some puck action resembling pinball machine, senior John Mazzei found sophomore Tomas Petruska for the shot to beat Lerg and tie the game.
“The game didn’t go perfectly for us,” said Spartans’ senior Daniel Vukovic. “We had stretches where we turned the puck over. I don’t think anyone on the whole bench gave up or was negative. We knew there was a chance. The bench could have been the total opposite of what it was. It could have been negative, but we said no we’re getting a win. You definitely felt a more championship atmosphere tonight. We just didn’t play our game the whole 60 minutes.”
However, the Spartans aren’t the defending NCAA champions without reason, and they came right back 3:43 into the third period to take a 3-2 lead. Abdelkader unleashed a laser from near the blue line to beat Eno for his first goal of the night.
They would need more late-game heroics from Abdelkader to finally win the game, though. The junior center specializes in such theatrics, like his game-winning goal in the NCAA championship game last April with 19 seconds left.
“We started out great with a goal by Petry,” Abdelkader said. “Then when we were up 3-2 they scored to tie it, and everyone on the bench kind of dropped down. We tried to keep it positive, and it was fortunate to get that fourth one because it really picked everybody up. It was what we really needed.”
The two teams face each other again tomorrow night in Bowling Green in the CCHA finale for both teams.