Coaches often call hockey a game of inches, but Saturday’s contest was clearly a game of minutes.
“If I can keep my fingers crossed about anything,” said Rick Comley, “it would be to get through the first five minutes. Honest to God.”
Talk about the answer to a prayer. The Michigan State head coach, loose during Friday’s post-practice press conference, expressed some understandable concern about the first few minutes of the title game against Boston College after the Spartans allowed two goals within the first four minutes of play in Thursday’s 4-2 semifinal win over Maine.
Saturday, not only did the Spartans hold the Eagles scoreless in those first five minutes, but they held BC to no shots on net for a little longer than that.
While that stat alone might indicate that the play was all in BC’s end, the Eagles took control of the game from the opening faceoff, forcing the Spartans to defend in their own end for the first full minute.
“In the first period, they made us play their game,” said Comley. “They’re too fast for us. Then it became kind of our style.”
The key difference between the start of Thursday’s game and this contest was the play of the Spartan defense in front of goaltender Jeff Lerg, right from the start of the game.
In particular, senior defenseman Tyler Howells was in exactly the right place at exactly the right times — at the 30-second and minute marks, to be specific — to prevent a repeat of the beginning of the Spartans’ semifinal performance.
In the first instance, Howells poke-checked the puck away from an Eagle close to the left post; in the second, he picked up a dangerous rebound in front of the MSU crease and sent it well out of harm’s way.
The Spartan defense had plenty of chances to shine through the rest of the period, especially during Chris Snavely’s two minutes at 9:46. At one point, Eagle Joe Rooney had Lerg dead to rights but missed an open net — leaving the puck in the perfect position for Ben Smith to score on the rebound from the opposite side of the crease. But Howells tied up Smith enough to force a turnover, and blueliner Brando Gentile cleared.
Defenseman Daniel Vukovic and forward Chris Mueller were also outstanding on that first BC power play, blocking shots and clearing loose pucks with Eagle-frustrating precision.
“I thought Vukovic has come a million miles,” said Comley. “Tyler Howells, I thought, was really good. I was really proud of Ethan Graham, how he got better, finally, as the game went on.”
Comley said that before the game, he asked only one thing of his players.
“I told the guys, ‘Give me one thing. Give me five minutes of 0-0 hockey, just so that we don’t have to chase them.’ They’re so good, they’re so very, very good.
“We couldn’t play two periods like that. We would not survive.”
While Comley knew that getting through those opening moments and forcing the Eagles to play Spartan hockey was essential to even having a chance of winning the game, MSU captain Chris Lawrence offered an alternative theory for the Spartans’ ability to keep it close.
“We probably had the loosest practice in the history of hockey Friday,” said Lawrence. “Coach told us to go out and have fun, but that’s the way our team is, though. If our team’s uptight, that’s when I’m worried.”
The Spartans were so loose before the title game that, as they were walking the arena to begin their warm-ups, Lawrence called out the long-time Lansing State Journal beat writer, Neil Koepke, by name as he passed the press area.
He did so again when he left the building. “Hello there, Mr. Koepke!” he cried, faking a Brooklyn accent. “Mr. Neil Koepke!”
“That’s the way our team is,” said Lawrence. “We have so much fun.”
Lawrence admitted to crying before the game, when it hit him that this may be his last game ever in organized hockey. Even that emotional moment wasn’t sacred.
“When I was crying before the game, Bryan Lerg goes, ‘Hey, you going to use a stick tonight?’ Ten minutes before the game and I forgot to tape my stick. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’
“It’s the way the guys are. We’re goofy. You have to have a thick skin to play on our team, because we give each other a lot of grief. It’s all in good fun. Guys love each other.
“It’s a true love we have for each other. I’m just so proud of these guys and so proud of Coach and our whole East Lansing and Spartan family.”