DETROIT — Michigan State had been here before in its recent 11-game slide: up in the third period, poised to celebrate a win.
Unlike the other moments during this lowly 2008-09 season, the Spartans didn’t let this chance get away from them. Despite some last-minute consternation, Michigan State held on tight to what they felt was rightfully theirs: a win and a berth in the Great Lakes Invitational championship game.
Behind senior goaltender and captain Jeff Lerg, Michigan State snapped its 11-game winless streak with an unlikely 2-1 win over No. 18 North Dakota in the GLI first round. Senior wing Matt Schepke also added two goals as the Spartans rode their senior leadership to the win tonight.
“That’s as hard as we’ve fought,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “That was a real good effort. The kids worked hard; we avoided some dangerous situations. They’re as good a team in the offensive zone as we’ve seen. That’s how dangerous they are.”
For North Dakota, this was a disappointing loss after four straight wins which put the squad back above .500 on the year. With the loss however, the Fighting Sioux fall back to even (9-9-1) on the season.
“I don’t want to take anything away from their performance,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “I feel they’re a team that knows how to win. There are certainly a lot of guys in that locker room who know how to win. But certainly I’m not happy with our performance. It starts with the coaches and goes down from there.”
The Fighting Sioux did get a late start on revving their engines tonight, but they closed with a focused effort. Trailing 2-0 late, the Fighting Sioux got their only goal with 3:24 left in the game on a power play opportunity. Sophomore wing Matt Frattin took a pass from Chay Genoway and beat Lerg on his right side for his eighth goal of the season.
Michigan State got on the board first at 7:14 of the first period on a power-play goal by senior wing Matt Schepke. After both teams exchanged fruitless power plays, the Spartans scored on their second opportunity during a loose-puck scrum in front of the net. Assisted by sophomores Corey Tropp and Joey Shean, MSU’s senior goal-scoring leader was able to poke the puck past Fighting Sioux freshman goalie Brad Eidsness to give the Spartans a rare power-play goal.
Coming into the game, MSU was just 8-for-81 this season on the power play. Considering their 11-game winless streak, it was just the jump-start the Spartans needed tonight.
“It felt really good to get the first goal and see the energy on the bench,” Schepke said. “The bench just erupted, and you could tell that first goal electrified the bench and the guys were ready to go. It felt good to get the first one and get the whole team going.”
MSU scored early in the second period to extend their lead to 2-0. Once again, it was Schepke and Tropp combining for the Spartans’ goal. With beautiful execution, both players found themselves approaching the net on opposite side, and when Tropp pushed the puck across the ice, Eidsness had no chance of stopping the Schepke shot.
The only time MSU has had a two-goal lead during this 11-game winless streak was against Minnesota on November 29 in the Icebreaker, and the Spartans ended up with a 4-4 tie.
“We haven’t had that type of lead too often this year,” Lerg said. “We kept on fighting, and we didn’t have a mental lapse just to get them back into the game.”
With the 2-0 lead at the end of the second period, Michigan State was poised to end its winless streak. Lerg was on his game, shutting down the Fighting Sioux on 26 shots through two periods. He finished with 38 for the game.
“We got beat by a good team,” Hakstol said. “They scored the first goal of the game and did a good job building it to a two-goal lead. It’s tough to play against them when they have a one- or two-goal lead.”
Michigan State will need a repeat effort from Lerg on Sunday to defeat the Wolverines. On December 6, the Spartans thought they had Michigan beat at home, but they surrendered three goals in the final 2:30 of the game to lose, 5-3.
That loss will be on every Spartan mind tomorrow night as Michigan State tries for its 12th GLI title. The Wolverines already own 12 GLI titles of their own.
“That was the hardest that we’ve fought to get a win, and we needed to,” Lerg said. “That’s the type of team we have to be, and hopefully it will carry over to tomorrow.”
With the win, the Spartans improve to 5-11-3 on the season, and they will face arch-rival No. 12 Michigan in tomorrow night’s championship game. The Wolverines swept Michigan State in early December in a home-and-home series for the CCHA rivals and earned their spot in the GLI final with a 5-0 win over Michigan Tech earlier today.
North Dakota will face Michigan Tech in the 3:05 p.m. consolation game tomorrow, and this will be a non-conference matchup for the WCHA foes. North Dakota had won the GLI championship in two of their previous three visits to the tournament.