The script added more drama than usual. Goliath had David in deep, deep trouble. In the end, however, the little guy once again took down the giant.
The NCAA semifinal contest between Michigan State and Maine provided the penultimate David versus Goliath battle in goal. MSU’s Jeff Lerg stood a vertically challenged 5-6 and weighed 155 pounds. At the other end of the ice, Maine’s Ben Bishop, the nation’s tallest goaltender, towered at 6-7, 210.
The two sophomores came into the Frozen Four in similar fashion, riding to their teams’ rescue in the NCAA regionals after disappointing regular seasons. Lerg, the CCHA’s preseason pick as its all-league goaltender, finished on neither the first nor second team after his freshman numbers of a 1.96 GAA and .928 Sv% plummeted to 2.46 and .911.
Bishop, on the other hand, improved on his rookie campaign, posting a 2.08 GAA and .925 Sv%. but two late-season instances of groin injuries sidelined him. He had to sit and watch while the Black Bears faltered without him down the stretch and got swept out of the Hockey East quarterfinals, putting their NCAA bid in jeopardy.
The regular season disappointments for both goaltenders, however, fell by the wayside in the NCAA Regionals. Both allowed only singletons in the games, Lerg earning MVP honors while Bishop was selected to the all-tournament team. Thanks to the two, Michigan State and Maine were now two games away from a national championship.
Here in the Frozen Four, Bishop proved the exception to Wilt Chamberlain’s comment that nobody likes Goliath. A native of the St. Louis area and property of the Blues, Bishop led all others in press interviews and clearly generated the loudest cheers during player introductions. Coincidentally, he also was the favorite of media members overdosing on alliteration, as evidenced by the following proposed headline: Blues Bring Black Bears’ Backstop Big Ben Bishop Back to Budtown.
David, in the form of Lerg, didn’t shy away from the confrontation with the hometown hero. After all, he’d just taken down two Hobey Baker finalists, John Curry and David Brown, in the Midwest Regional.
“I feel every game is a one-on-one competition,” Lerg said. “Whether it’s against a first- or last-place team, I always take it as a one-on-one competition. I feel if I do my job, my teammates will do the rest.”
In the early stages of the semifinal, however, Goliath had it all over David. Maine held a 2-0 lead before the game was even three and a half minutes old on two grade A chances from the low slot. The Spartans weren’t testing Bishop at all and it looked like a repeat of last year’s regional, in which Maine took an early 3-0 lead and ended Michigan State’s season.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a good feeling looking up and the scoreboard was 2-0 and it was [barely] three minutes into the game,” Lerg said. “For a second, I flashed back to last year and wondered, ‘How do you stop them in the first couple minutes?’
“But my mental game is my best asset. So you have to shrug it off. I just told myself that it was a 60-minute game. If they won the first five minutes, so be it. If we win the next 55, then we’ll be all right.”
The Spartans scored a huge goal four minutes later on a puck swatted out of midair and the “win the next 55” approach gained credibility. Slowly, but surely, Michigan State climbed back into the game. Late in the second period, defenseman Chris Snavely scored his second goal of the year to tie up what had begun as a laugher.
Two more Michigan State goals in the third period completed the comeback and sent the Spartans into the national championship game. Ironically enough, the game-winner went over Goliath, sprawled out and trying to tie the puck up.
After the win, David relished the opportunity that awaited him, a potential NCAA title for a team backstopped by the kid that some claimed was too small to get it done.
“I’ve never felt that I was too small to do anything, but to others I have been,” Lerg said. “It’s a dream come true to play for a national championship. Every game I tell myself that this is a chance to prove something to everyone else who doesn’t believe.”
This next game will be the best chance of all.