The details of how it went down would imply there was a large-scale change somewhere in Michigan State’s national semifinal victory Thursday afternoon.
After falling behind 2-0 inside of four minutes into the Frozen Four opener at Scottrade Center, the Spartans made the game theirs with four unanswered goals to claim a 4-2 victory over Maine.
There was a critical period of time involved in the turnaround, but, in reality, it was much longer than just the Chris Mueller first-period goal that gave the Spartans some footing.
It was that effort followed by another and a sustained level of intelligence that has the Spartans going into the final college hockey game of the season.
The change in momentum boiled down to a six-minute stretch of the first period.
With the Black Bears ahead 2-0 on a pair of goals in the first 3 minutes, 24 seconds, Michigan State’s Mueller helped stop the bleeding by swatting home a rebound of his own shot.
“I got a little bit of luck, got a break batting it out of midair,” Mueller said. “Once it went in, you just get motivation and get the momentum on your side.”
At that point, Mueller said, “It was just another hockey game.”
A huge element in the overall shift of the game came minutes later, when Spartans winger Tim Kennedy was sent off from cross-checking.
The Spartans were understandably wary of Maine’s nation-leading power play, which had been a staple of the Black Bears’ success this season.
Maine attempted five shots on goal in that two minutes, but Spartans goaltender Jeff Lerg stopped four and another was blocked.
“Clearly,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said, “that was a huge moment in the game.”
A Maine goal at that point not only would have restored the two-goal advantage, it would have set the Spartans back on their heels again.
“We knew coming in one of the things we had to do was kill any penalties we took,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said. “And if they score on their first power play, it’s a whole different mindset. … I didn’t want to chase them all game.”
That would have been all too familiar to the Spartans, who were ousted from the NCAAs last season thanks to three Maine goals in the opening period of a regional final.
Maine scored on both of its power plays in that game last season, and on Thursday the Spartans placed a premium on playing a smart game.
They again allowed only two power plays, but they also only took two penalties all told.
That and Lerg regaining his confidence were keys to holding down the Maine offense after the opening four minutes.
“You hope kids, when they get to big games, will make good decisions,” Comley said.
Said Mueller: “You’re not going to have much success if you’re in the box.”
When the Black Bears did have the power play, they were met with an MSU penalty kill that went out of its way — literally — to make things difficult. Comley said his team put forth a dedicated effort to block shots and front the Maine power-play personnel.
The early deficit didn’t throw the Spartans off their game. “There was no panic,” Mueller claimed, repeating the phrase a few moments later for emphasis.
Michigan State proved it with its resiliency, and with its defensive performance after allowing the early goals.
Lerg, for one, was appreciative of the effort.
“They really just took care of business,” he said.