It’s been Miller Time all season at Michigan State. The sophomore All-Everything goaltender has deservedly captured the limelight, leading the Spartans to the number-one ranking that they’ve held since Thanksgiving.
Keeping the puck out of the net goes a long way in establishing a 33-4-4 record, but you have to score goals as well, and the often-overlooked MSU offense came into the first national semifinal Thursday ranked a decent 20th in the nation, contributing to the Spartans having the widest scoring margin in Division I.
“They talk about us being a defensive team; we’re a little better offensively than people give us credit for,” said head coach Ron Mason on Wednesday.
Thursday, however, offense was nowhere to be found in the first period of Michigan State’s semifinal against North Dakota. Shots on goal were 15-3 Sioux at one point in the first stanza, and ended 17-7 with the Spartans on the short end of a 2-0 score after one.
“We could never really get it going,” said Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. “Playing from behind is hard against a good team, and North Dakota has an excellent defense.”
The Sioux defense, led by sophomore Travis Roche, made that early cushion stand up, and netminder Karl Goehring stopped all 30 shots he faced for his second straight 2-0 NCAA semifinal win.
Mason was more pragmatic about his team’s scoring ability after the loss than he had been on Wednesday.
“Our offense has been questionable all year,” he said. “We have to score on the good chances that we get, and we didn’t do that.”
For the Spartans, seeded first in this year’s field, it was another frustrating trip to the NCAA tournament, which they have failed to win in their last 12 tries. This was MSU’s eighth straight trip to the nationals, and in each case it hasn’t managed to reach the championship game.
The key, according to Mason and his players, was the early hole they dug for themselves, combined with the team’s inability to get the one goal that might have turned things around.
“Our kids were nervous in the first period,” Mason said. “There was less pressure on North Dakota. They’ve been here, they’ve won the title, they know how to play.”
A reason for the slow start might have been MSU’s recent inactivity. The Spartans had played only one game — a 4-1 win over Wisconsin on March 25 — since the CCHA championship game back on March 17.
“We haven’t played a game in two weeks, so I thought our defense would move the puck better after the first period, and we did when we got it going,” said Mason.
But the damage had already been done.
“One game [recently] against a team that didn’t challenge us very much in our own zone hurt us.”
One goal, especially an early answer to the pair scored by the Sioux might have made a difference in how the second and third period played out.
— MSU forward Rustyn Dolyny, on the 2-0 loss to North Dakota
“I think that if we had gotten a goal, maybe it would have been a different game, but that didn’t happen,” said senior captain Rustyn Dolyny. “I would have liked to see us get one past them to maybe put them on their heels.”
“We would have liked to see what a goal would have done for us,” echoed Mason.
But the first period seemed to set the tone for the rest of game, and the Spartans never could crawl back into it.
“We played terrible in the first period,” said Dolyny. “The worst we’ve played all season.”
“We had a game like this against Northern Michigan [a 3-2 loss on February 2] where we couldn’t get anything going, and we lost that one too,” Mason said.
So for the sixth straight time, the high seed in the tournament failed to bring home title. Mason and his players tried to make the best of it.
“It’s tough to end with a loss, but nothing can take away from what this team accomplished. This group overachieved on a consistent basis,” said Mason.
Dolyny echoed his coach’s comments.
“Like Coach said, it’s tough to end with a loss,” he said. Time will help with what has happened. It’s been a great four years.”