EAST LANSING, Mich. — The “Road to the Joe” is paved in Green and Gold. Tonight, the Northern Michigan Wildcats came back from losing game one of the CCHA quarterfinals on Friday to take the series with a 3-2 overtime win over defending NCAA Champions, Michigan State.
“We correlated tonight’s game to a game seven,” Wildcat coach Walt Kyle said. “It’s the seventh time we’ve played this year. They’ve won three, we’ve won three. And we took it out like the Stanley Cup playoffs. Game seven. We have to play in their building. We have to get it down and expect it to be tight.”
Both teams came out to play in the first period. They were skating hard, completing checks and roughing when the refs weren’t looking. Just 15 seconds in, Spartans’ Tim Kennedy and Wildcats’ Phil Fox took unsportsmanlike conduct calls. 59 seconds later, Northern’s Alan Dorich was called for holding giving State a minute of five-on-three and three consecutive minutes of power play. Northern killed the penalties, using it’s bodies to obstruct shots. Sophomore goalie Brian Stewart stayed solid to the posts and didn’t falter.
“The guys playing in front of me are great,” Stewart said. “Especially our ‘D’. They’re doing a hell of a job clearing rebounds, blocking shots and letting me see when I’m yelling at them so it’s been great.”
At 10:45, the Spartans came back to the Wildcat zone and took three consecutive shots. Stewart finally covered the puck and the whistle was blown. Less than a second later the puck flew into the net, much to the displeasure of the crowd. To mimic last night’s game even more, Wildcats’ Blake Cosgrove took an interference call at 14:36 and during the power play, the Spartans hit a post so loud radio listeners could hear it.
The Wildcats made their way onto the scoreboard at 17:51 with a goal from senior Andrew Sarauer, who came up the center and shot the puck right of Spartan goalie Jeff Lerg. The assists went to Tim Hartung and Ray Kaunisto.
“We got out of the zone,” Sarauer said. “Ray Kaunisto was driving along the boards there and he made a great chip up to Tim Hartung and we were both driving the net and the D-men took Ray and Tim’s got great vision on the ice and I was just driving to the net praying he would see me and he lifted his head and saw me and all I had to do was just chip it into the back door. It was a great play by both of my line mates and I give them all the credit.”
The Spartans came out to play in the second. At 3:48 Tim Crowder fed the puck to Bryan Lerg at the center of the Wildcat zone. Lerg carried the puck up the ice, faked out Stewart and put it under his glove hand.
Later in the period, Cosgrove took the puck outside of the right faceoff circle. He passed it to Matt Butcher who was parallel to the right goal post. Butcher the fed the puck across the crease to Fox who was eagerly waiting to send the puck left of Lerg, giving the Wildcats their one goal lead back at 14:45.
At 15:34 Butcher took an interference call. Thirty-one seconds later Nick Sirota took a goalie interference call as he collided with Lerg on open ice. This gave the Spartans their second five-on-three of the night and it lasted for a minute and a half. Despite their two-man advantage, they couldn’t score.
“We’ve had a really good five-on-three the last half of the year and Sirota, Olver and Miller do a great job blocking shots,” Butcher said.
The third period again showed that Northern’s penalty kill could stand their ground when Butcher took a tripping call at 5:02. The Spartans’ Justin Abdelkader went to the box at 12:02 for contact to the head/elbowing and was followed 18 seconds later by Northern’s Sirota who went in for tripping.
It looked like the Wildcats had locked up their trip to the Joe but then, with 2:58 left, the Spartans scored. On a pass from Ryan Turek and Abdelkader, Nick Sucharski put the puck over Stewart’s left shoulder on a rebound.
“They’re not the National Champions for a reason and we got on our heels at the end there,” Sarauer said. “We just tried to get the puck out when we could.”
The teams headed into overtime. 11:04 marked the goal from Wildcat freshman Gregor Hanson and Butcher, who put the puck to the left of Lerg to give the Wildcats their overtime win.
“It’s definitely the most exciting goal of my life,” Butcher said. “Miller did a good job getting the puck and kind of got a piece of it and threw it back to Gregor, there, and he made a great play giving it back to me and I just closed my eyes and shot the puck.”
“Gregor Hanson doesn’t play the last 12 minutes of regulation and ten minutes into overtime on the power play I asked if he was ready and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready,’ and he makes the play to Butcher to get the goal,” Kyle said.
“We actually talked, before the game, ‘If we score a power play goal tonight we’re going to win,’ because they’ve been so good on their power play that we had to expect them to do something. I thought five-on-five there were times we moved well and got our chances but their power play was much more effective than ours through the course of the weekend.
“I have to give our guys credit tonight because they scored that late goal and young teams really have the ability to fold and it’s a credit to our leadership and it’s a credit to Stewart in goal and being able to regather ourselves.”
The Wildcats head to the Joe Louis Arena next weekend for the CCHA Championships against top-seeded Michigan.
“During warm ups I was stretching, thinking, ‘this isn’t my last game as a Wildcat. I’m not ready to take off my jersey,’” Sarauer said. “We’re going to do what we can to bring a championship back to Northern.”