COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — There’s an old saying that defense wins championships. For the defending champion No. 9 Michigan State Spartans, that defense manifests itself in goaltender Jeff Lerg, who continued his NCAA tournament brilliance tonight, stopping 41 shot in a 3-1 win over the host No. 6 Colorado College Tigers 3-1 to advance to the final of the West Regional against CCHA foe Notre Dame.
“They were a tough team to play against,” said Lerg. “I think that since this is my third year here and third year in the national tournament, that’s when good players have to step up.”
The Tigers came out with a lot of jump and immediately started testing Lerg. They fired 12 shots on Lerg, while the Spartans could only must two against Tigers’ netminder Richard Bachman. The one positive for Lerg was that a lot of the shots came from the perimeter, and he quickly got into a rhythm.
After the first period, it looked like it might become a goaltenders’ duel, something to be expected when two of the top goalies in the country face off against each other.
“Actually, it was just the scoreboard,” said Spartans’ coach Rick Comley. “We talked all week about being tied going into the third period, because we knew they were going to come at us and the fact that it was 0-0 was encouraging.”
The Spartans got on the board first on a pretty play by Tim Kennedy. While on a power play, Jeff Petry picked fired a shot from the top of the slot that Bachman made the stop on, but Kennedy picked it up and stepped to his right, took a couple strides and then backhanded the puck past Bachman from near the goal line at 9:27 of the second.
The Spartans’ power play struck again late in the second when Jeff Dunne took a pass from Bryan Lerg and fired a wrist shot as he skated across the top of the slot that beat Bachman high stick side at 18:03.
With time winding down in the second, it looked like the Tigers would go into the locker room down by two. However, a broken play broke the Tigers’ backs. With a faceoff to the right of Bachman with 10 seconds left, Tigers’ coach Scott Owens sent out his top faceoff man, senior Chad Rau. However, some confusion about who was to come off seemed to disconcert the Tigers, and Rau got tossed from the faceoff. The Spartans won the ensuing faceoff, and with seven seconds left, Justin Abdelkader won the draw to Kennedy,who passed it to Chris Mueller. Mueller fired it past Bachman’s right shoulder for a 3-0 lead.
“I just remember the last goal and that was just a killer,” said Owens. “To go down 3-0 against Lerg and Michigan State is a tough thing. It just takes the breath right out of you. I thought that was definitely a momentum changer.”
“It was definitel a huge goal, and all credit to Chris here,” said Lerg. “To score with seven seconds left is kind of the back-breaker for them. They go in only two goals down in their own rink, I’m sure they look at that as something they can do, but once we got that third one, it took some of their momentum away from them.”
“It felt great, getting a back-breaker like that, especially with Jeff in net,” said Mueller. “We just have to play Michigan State hockey the way coach laid it out for us.”
To their credit, the Tigers continued to come hard against Lerg, and got off 17 shots in the third, forcing Lerg to make some excellent saves. On Chad Rau’s wraparound attempt, Lerg was forced to dive back to prevent Rau from tucking the puck inside the left post.
The Tigers’ finally brought some life to the crowd at 12;07 of the third when Derek Patrosso fired a shot from the right side that beat Lerg five-hole.
“We knew that he was an unbelievable goalie coming into this,” said Tigers’ captain Scott Thauwald. “The key thing was that we wanted to get traffic in on him. We didn’t want to get down on ourselves that they weren’t going in, you just have to keep shooting and trying to get chances. Goalies are what win playoff hockey games.”
For many, the results out of Colorado Springs might be a surprise, as both CCHA teams won. For Comley, the CCHA’s emphasis on defensive hockey is a plus at this time of year.
“We like our league,” said Comley. “We compete against each other, we push each other, and I think the WCHA is a bit more up-and-down and our league is little more defensive, and sometimes in playoff hockey that’s what it takes.”
The Spartans will face CCHA rival Notre Dame at 8:00 M.S.T.