EAST LANSING, Mich. — For the Michigan State Spartans this season, no points come easy. Up 1-0 on No. 16 Ohio State with just over 10 seconds to go, the Spartans saw their best chance at their first back-to-back wins since late October evaporate when Buckeye Hunter Bishop finally beat MSU goaltender Jeff Lerg at 19:49 with the net empty at the other end.
However, it was Lerg that nearly willed that win into reality during regulation and Lerg who was outstanding in overtime, and Lerg who prevailed during the shootout, stopping three of four rounds to give the Spartans two points and their first three-game unbeaten streak in 20 games.
“We’re not going to win easy; that’s obvious,” said MSU coach Rick Comley. “Jeff was spectacular again.”
The senior goaltender made 36 saves in the contest, including 13 in the third period and four quality OT shots. In the shootout, he allowed one goal to Ohio State’s Zac Dalpe but stymied Corey Elkins, Peter Boyd and the man who beat him with 11 seconds left on the clock, Hunter Bishop.
“I felt good down the stretch there,” said Lerg. “I had to make some of my best saves of the year down the stretch. After I made two or three big ones in a row, I thought we were going to seal it out. To be honest, I’m kind of disappointed here. I kind of felt like I gave it my all and for 20 seconds we just couldn’t push a little bit extra and work a little bit harder and even ice the puck. That’s the negative of the game.”
The one that beat him was a shot from the right circle that hit Lerg’s shoulder, shot up to the crossbar, and ricocheted into the net behind the goalie.
“You talk about bad luck,” said Comley. “Three times [tonight] that puck stays up on the ledge, three straight times, and all it’s got to do is come off the ledge and we chip it out and the game is over.”
“I felt it hit my shoulder,” said Lerg. “I didn’t see. I thought I got it all, but obviously not.”
The goal came 20 seconds after Lerg made a series of spectacular point-blank saves that culminated in the goaltender’s nimble save on a rebound shot by Boyd. Although Lerg didn’t see the shot that beat him, he did see the shooter.
“I felt like he was on his own planet over there,” said Lerg. “I looked and I did not see one other person close to him. Kind of a heartbreaker.”
After a scoreless first period, the Spartans took a 1-0 lead at 8:12 in the second on freshman Brett Perlini’s first career goal from Matt Schepke and Brandon Gentile. Schepke tried to center in front of the net but his pass was deflected by Boyd, trying to intercept. As the puck squibbed away from Boyd toward the crease, Perlini crashed in to score from close range.
In the shootout, MSU’s Kurt Kivisto and Ben Warda beat OSU goaltender Dustin Carlson to give the Spartans two CCHA points. Kivisto’s shot went in midway up on the right and Warda’s through Carlson’s five-hole.
“I thought they played a great game,” said OSU coach John Markell. “I thought they out-battled us for pucks in front of the net in critical areas that we needed to have. Obviously, Lerg is the backbone of that team.”
Markell had little praise for his own team after the game, and indeed the whole outfit seemed out of synch. Before coming into the contest, Ohio State had the No. 5 offense in the nation and top in the CCHA. In addition to the Buckeyes’ inability to score, OSU committed two too-many-men penalties, both coming after unsuccessful power-play attempts.
Those extra-man penalties, said Markell, were “a little bit about our bench and I take responsibility for that, and he added that the Buckeyes’ power play “continues to be a mystery.” Both teams were 0-for-5 with the man advantage tonight.
Lerg took little comfort in keeping one of the best offensive teams in the country to one regulation goal. “It was tough. I felt like I was in the zone and I really wish we could have just taken two and given them nothing.”
The Buckeyes (18-9-4, 11-8-4-3) and Spartans (8-18-4, 5-14-4-3 CCHA) meet again Saturday evening in Munn Arena at 5:05 p.m. For that contest, said Markell, the Buckeyes will have to be “prepared to play a tougher type of game.”