EAST LANSING, Mich. — This much any hockey fan knows is true: if Michigan State gets ahead at Munn Arena heading into the third period, fans of opposing teams better pray for a miracle.
Jeff Lerg doesn’t give up a lot of home leads late in the game. The Western Michigan Broncos learned this firsthand tonight, as Michigan State won the opening game of the CCHA weekend series, 3-1, behind Lerg’s locked-down net, freshman scoring and a lot of quality Spartans penalty killing.
Lerg already has won the CCHA Goaltender of the Week award twice this season, and with this effort, it looks like he may going for a third award.
With the win, No. 11 Michigan State improves their record to 4-2-1 overall and 2-0-1-1 in the CCHA. Western Michigan drops to 1-5-1 and 0-2-1-1, respectively.
“It was a tough game,” Michigan State Coach Rick Comley said. “There was a lot of contact out there tonight. A couple of leg saves, toe saves, were vintage Jeff Lerg. We’re very fortunate to have (Lerg).”
In a tense third period, Lerg was once again the difference for the Spartans. After winning last week’s overtime shootout on Friday and throwing a shutout on Saturday, the senior captain picked up right where he left off, despite giving up a first period goal.
Additionally, Lerg set the all-time saves record for MSU during the game tonight.
“Sometimes when they have too many saves, it’s not good,” Comley joked. “He’s done it while winning, and that’s the great part. That’s a real tribute to him. He’s just such a magical goalie. When he had to make a big save, he was there.”
Michigan State, already leading 2-1 heading into the final frame, got an insurance goal from freshman center Dalton Leveille — his second of the night — with 6:40 left in the game.
“Good players arrive at the right time,” added Comley. “[Leveille] does, with that great speed of his. He’s going to score for us. He’s going to be a fun player for us.”
For the Broncos, it was another close call against a Spartans team they’ve played hard and successfully against recently. In the past three-plus seasons, Western Michigan is 4-4-1 against Michigan State.
“It was well-played by both teams,” said Western Michigan Coach Jim Culhane. “It’s a one-goal game going into the third period. We want to be consistent in our approach. Our approach doesn’t change regardless of who we’re playing.”
“Losing hurts,” he added. “We’re all competitive people. It should sting. And it does.”
The first period saw the Spartans fight off two minor penalties in the middle of the period, resulting in few shots on goal for the Broncos. Michigan State was rather systematic in shutting down the Western Michigan power play, in fact, as the Broncos didn’t see any good scoring chances during those four minutes.
This enabled the Spartans to strike first on the scoreboard with 7:19 left in the period. On a delayed penalty call, the scrum in front of the net never ended, and freshman wing Andrew Conboy managed to poke the puck over the left shoulder of Broncos goaltender Riley Gill.
“Against this team, I think we can hurt their defense, and we got to make them defend their goal a lot,” Comley said.
However, the lead didn’t last long, as Western Michigan tied it up less than two minutes later after a careless penalty by Michigan State defenseman Ryan Turek. Broncos sophomore center Max Campbell took a cross-net pass from junior wing Cam Watson and easily beat Spartans senior goaltender Jeff Lerg to tie the score with 5:51 left in the period.
“We lost all our penalty killers,” Comley said. “We had too much practice tonight. That’s the second game in a row: too many penalties. It’s going to cost us games.”
Michigan State had two subsequent power plays in the first period, basically back-to-back for 3:59, but the best the Spartans could manage was an unfavorable ricochet, off the post shot during the first power play. The Spartans had another power play opportunity for the last 59 seconds of the period, and they couldn’t take advantage of that chance, either.
Overall, Michigan State outshot Western Michigan 14-5 in the period, but they couldn’t get ahead on the scoreboard.
The second period saw the penalties and the action slow down a bit, as the first half of the period was quiet with no scoring. The last ten minutes of the period saw more penalties, and as a result, there were more scoring chances.
With 49.9 left in the period, the Spartans scored a backbreaker to take a 2-1 lead. Leveille took a pretty pass right in front of the net from freshman defenseman Brock Shelgren — his first NCAA point — and beat Gill for the go-ahead score.
“That second goal was a big goal, wasn’t it?” Comley said. “The game had a funny look to it.”
“It hurts,” Culhane added. “A loss like this? It stings. It hurts. With that said, we all know we have short clock, we have to turn it around and get ready for tomorrow night.”
The two CCHA regional rivals play again Saturday night in Kalamazoo. Tip-off is at 7:35 p.m. Eastern.