It’s been every bit the rollercoaster season for coach Rick Comley and Michigan State. From a hot start to a winless November and back to an unbeaten February, the Spartans have seen it all this year — and they believe they are better for it.
“This is a young hockey team that has been battle-tested in some tough environments,” said Comley. “They deserve a lot of credit. The second half we have had has been as good as anyone in the country and these kids have worked tremendously hard to get to this point. Now, we’ll take the good of the regular season and now get ready for the playoffs.”
Despite missing as many as eight scholarship players, the Spartans jumped out of the gates to a 5-1-2 start against some of the top teams in the country. A 5-0 shutout victory over North Dakota and a split at Cornell propelled MSU to the No. 6 spot in the nation.
Comley said, “I think we felt pretty early that we were a good team, but the question was whether we could play over the massive injuries.”
Shortly thereafter, MSU struggled mightily, amassing a 0-5-2 record during a winless November. Many were searching for answers, especially considering that the once-injured players had begun making their return to the lineup.
“I don’t know if it’s that the guys were saying that ‘We can relax now that so-and-so is back,’ but I think it was tough for the injured players getting back into game shape. When I first came back, I know that I wasn’t playing my best,” said David Booth.
“We had to develop an identity, and I think we’ve done that,” said Comley. “We’ve established a style of play. We aren’t a laid-back team, but we play solid defense. If you call it a trap, I guess we do that, but we do pursue the puck in the offensive zone.”
As the second half began, fate may have come into play as then-incumbent netminder Dominic Vicari had a contact lens problem and eventual eye infection, which allowed freshman sensation Jeff Lerg an opportunity to show just what he can do.
In the three games that Vicari was out, the freshman was 3-0-0 with a 0.67 goals against average and a .975 save percentage.
“Jeff got in there and played great and won and the team got very confident in front of him,” said Comley. “He deserves tremendous credit for the stretch that he has had. The two things that he does that have really helped us to become a better are his ability to see the puck in traffic and the ability to control rebounds.”
Lerg, awarded the best goaltender in junior hockey last season, continues to rise to the occasion, leading the Spartans on an impressive 13-2-2 run through the second half. His 1.72 goals against average and .936 save percentage since Jan. 1 mark the finest statistical performance since someone named Ryan Miller manned the crease for the Green and White.
In complete contrast to the lows of November, Lerg led the Spartans to an unbeaten February, just a tie with LSSU last weekend away from a perfect month. Ironically, the last time the Spartans were flawless in February, they hoisted a national championship banner.
Lacking some of the sparkle of dominant offensive teams, the Spartans have sneaked under the radar a bit because team defense is such a focal point. Led by assistant captains Corey Potter and Jared Nightingale, MSU is only surrendering 1.8 goals per game in the second half.
Comley said, “We aren’t beating teams by five or six goals. We play a style that keeps the games close and gives us a chance to win close hockey games. And, with the way our defense and goaltending have been, I am very confident that we can win close hockey games.”
The Spartans should be confident in a one-goal game; MSU owns a 10-4-8 record in games decided by one goal or less, which includes 12 of the Spartans’ last 14 regular-season games.
As Michigan State moves toward the second season, confidence is back in the locker room. With a sweep of No. 2 Miami and a second-place finish, the Spartans earned a bye and the right to host a second-round CCHA playoff matchup.
Looking forward to the NCAA tournament, the Spartans are 15-8-7 against Teams Under Consideration for the field and are in the hunt for a top seed in one of the regions.
Yet, this balanced, resilient, confident team is not looking too far ahead.
“You can’t win anything in the first half,” said Booth. “Traditionally we’ve played well in the second half and we need to keep moving forward. Our next goal is to win the CCHA championship.”
“Without making too much of it, I think this team has just gotten better week-by-week. There are a lot of guys battling, competing and progressing. We’re not satisfied by any means, though,” said Comley. “We have guys still that can get going. We have not peaked by any means yet. We’re a work in progress, but a good work in progress.”