EAST LANSING, Mich. — If the Notre Dame Fighting Irish want to surpass last years runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, theyll have to play better than they did tonight against lowly Michigan State.
Then again, winning games like these is exactly how a team finds its way to the NCAA title. Beating a proud team on Senior Night in a hostile environment demonstrates the Irish ability to win games in adverse conditions: exactly what they need in the next month of postseason tournament play.
With this win, No. 2 Notre Dame finishes the regular season at 26-5-3, including a 21-4-3-3 record in CCHA play. This is the second time in three years the Irish have won the CCHA regular season title. Michigan State finishes 10-21-5 overall, including their 7-17-4-3 mark in conference games for a probable 11th place finish.
However, even with the win, Notre Dame Coach Jeff Jackson wasnt pleased.
I thought we did a much better job of managing the puck last night, said Jackson. I thought tonight Michigan State did a good job of clogging things up. We werent as good in supporting each other, and it resulted in us giving up too many turnovers in my estimation.
Notre Dame broke a 1-1 tie in the third period at the 12:39 mark with a pretty scoring play. Senior center Christian Hansen took the feed pass from junior defenseman Kyle Lawson across the ice and planted a short-range shot deep in the net. Michigan States senior captain and goaltender Jeff Lerg had no chance at the save.
The Irish couldnt have drawn the play up any better than they executed it.
To beat a goaltender like Jeff Lerg, youre going to have to make a nice play at the net, said Jackson. Youre either going to have traffic at the net with a rebound or a deflection, or youre going to have to make a play cross-crease.
For Michigan State, the highlights were far and few in between.
But seven-plus minutes into the second period, Lerg became the all-time saves leader in CCHA history, passing Western Michigans Glen Healy. With his 35th and final save of the game in the third period, the Spartans senior captain moved up to second on the all-time NCAA Division I career saves list, passing current Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, a former Vermont standout.
You cant say enough, Michigan State Rick Comley said. Hes one of the best ever. He certainly joins legitimately the company of Ryan Miller, Chad Alban, as the great goaltenders who have played here. He gives you a chance every night. Thats why in this difficult situation for us, you go into the playoffs with a chance.
But it wasnt enough to get Michigan State a win on Senior Night. The Spartans had a power play chance with eight minutes left, but as was the case for most of the game, they couldnt generate much offense against the Irish defense.
I think we played really well in the second, Comley added. I think what the hope was that you could take it into overtime, and then maybe one shot wins. But then we turned the puck over on the second goal.
Overall, the game was an uneven struggle, as Notre Dame dominated the first period in every way. Yet the Irish didnt get a goal until 4.6 seconds remained. After a few blocked shots and with a scrum in the front of the net, senior right wing Erik Condra managed to get the puck past a sprawling Lerg to give second-ranked Notre Dame the 1-0 lead. Junior center Dan Kissel and sophomore forward Ben Ryan assisted on the goal.
It was a huge goal, obviously, Jackson said. Its so hard when the goaltender is out as far as Jeff is to get to the net in that situation. Its a momentum goal coming at the end of the period.
As it was, it was a disheartening end to the first period for Michigan State, who were clearly out played on every level except the scoreboard. Condras tally changed that, however, contributing to Notre Dames 16-3 shot advantage in the period.
Anytime you give up a goal in the last minute, it shouldnt happen, Michigan State sophomore defenseman Jeff Petry said. Especially with five seconds left, weve got to be strong in front of the net and chip the puck out and put it into a non-dangerous area. He (Lerg) really had no chance on that one.
As a result of Lergs excellent play, Michigan State was able to tie the score during a 4-on-4 opportunity with 5:51 left in the second period. Junior wing Jay Sprague netted his first goal of the season, assisted by Petry and senior wing Matt Schepke.
With so much traffic in front of the net and the immediate kick of the puck back into the zone by Irish goaltender Jordan Pearce, the officials needed to review the goal before confirming the score. Spragues shot ended a scoring drought of 167 minutes, 37 seconds for Michigan State.
Were playing guys on our top two lines who couldnt make our lineup at the beginning of the year, Comley said. Theyre giving us what they have. Theres just a bunch of them that arent capable of contributing.
Lerg made another crucial save with 24 seconds left in the second period, when Lawson found himself right in front of the net with the puck. He wound up instantly, only to bury the puck right in Lergs midsection. This enabled Michigan State to escape to the third period tied, despite being outshot 30-9 through two periods.
As a person, Ive never seen somebody work so hard and be so dedicated, Petry said of his captain. Having him between the pipes, he comes up with those big saves.
Even Jackson went out of his way to pay his respects to Lerg after the game.
As a coach, you learn to respect players that play four years, Jackson said. You learn to respect players that do things the right way, regardless if theyre your players. I learned to respect Jeff Lerg as a player and as a person. I just wanted to congratulate him and tell him he would have fit right in with us, too.
The CCHA playoffs begin next weekend, and as the regular-season champion, Notre Dame will have a first-round bye. However, Michigan State will be traveling for a best-of-three series starting Friday night, most likely against Northern Michigan (depending on the outcome of later games tonight), and the Spartans will need Lerg to make any kind of postseason run.
In the playoffs, goaltenders can steal games, Comley said. In 35 years of coaching, I think hes the best Ive ever coached, and I mean it in the total context of the student-athlete: never an issue, never a concern, never a worry, never a doubt. Just his preparation: nothing comes easy. And maybe hell never get complete credit for that. Being what he is didnt just happen. He made it happen with the right approach to everything.