Jeff Lerg may only be 5-foot-6 on a good day, but all tournament long he has towered over his opponents. Lerg’s play was paramount in MSU’s national championship run, but what has gone overlooked is the type of quality opponent he has beaten in net to take his team to the title.
Dating back to the consolation game of the CCHA championship, a win that solidified the Spartans in the NCAA tournament field, Lerg has beaten in consecutive order:
• Jeff Jakaitis, Lake Superior, 2.31 goals against average (19th in the nation), .931 save percentage (second)
• John Curry, Boston University, 2.01 goals against average (fourth), .928 save percentage (sixth)
• David Brown, Notre Dame, 1.58 goals against average (first), .931 save percentage (second)
• Ben Bishop, Maine, 2.14 goals against average (eighth), .923 save percentage (ninth)
• Cory Schneider, Boston College, 2.15 goals against average (ninth), .925 save percentage (seventh)
“Finally, he hopes that people will stop saying that’s he’s too small,” said MSU coach Rick Comley.
Chris Mueller’s empty-net goal with 1.7 seconds left may seem insignificant for most casual fans, but for those surrounding the Spartans it was a symbol of destiny.
As MSU President Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon quipped in a postgame press conference following the Maine game, “I was not worried because I heard that we are 12-0 when Chris Mueller scores.” Mueller’s tally in that game brought his Spartans to 13-0, and Saturday, with that otherwise-insignificant empty-netter, MSU finished 14-0 when the junior assistant captain from West Seneca, N.Y., popped a goal.
USCHO Fan Forum aficionados will know that head coach Rick Comley has been the brunt of some tough criticism in his five-year tenure at Michigan State. Even Comley admitted that last year was a season on the brink.
“Had we not won last year, I probably would not be here this year,” said Comley. “If we had gone 20-17 again, who knows what would have happened? The program means too much to me to be a survivor. I know you can’t win it every year, but I want to walk through the tunnel proud, and I want to be accepted as somebody that they like and want there.
“I really want to thank Ron Mason. The last five years have not been easy, but I knew that when I came to Michigan State, I thought the greatest strength was his friendship and loyalty.”
It’s hard to knock a champion, but MSU could have hung its head on two near-misses had Boston College held on for a 1-0 victory in the third period. Midway through the frame, Tim Kennedy was the recipient of a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play that left him all alone at the bottom of the left circle with goaltender Cory Schneider way out of position, but the sophomore winger flung the puck just wide.
Then, with the game tied 1-1 in the final minute, fellow sophomore and linemate Justin Abdelkader sped down the right wing and snapped a shot that beat Schneider over the glove, but clanked off the right post into the corner.
Miraculously, both players somehow found a way to rebound to score goals propelling MSU onward to victory. Kennedy beat Schneider on a mini-break off a faceoff. Abdelkader banged one home from the doorstep.
Voyage For 1491
A championship bout matchup between Boston College head coach Jerry York and Michigan State’s Rick Comley marked the first time in college hockey history that two coaches in the 700 win club have ever vied against each other for a national title.
York’s 777 wins lead all active coaches while Comley hit the 700 mark this season and now stands at 714. York and Comley both have coached at three schools, and Comley, with the win, also joined York as two of just three coaches all-time to have a national title at two different universities.
York began his coaching career at Clarkson before inheriting his post at Bowling Green from college hockey’s winningest coach and current MSU athletic director Ron Mason. His Falcons were champions in 1984, and York repeated the feat in 2001 at Boston College. Comley also filled Mason’s shoes at Lake Superior before moving to Northern Michigan, where he earned the program’s lone national championship in 1991.
Wishing It Was Gionta
Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg was going to have his hands full when Boston College’s Brian Boyle came barreling down the ice at him. At 6-foot-7, Boyle stands more than a foot taller than Lerg, and his big body was used early and often to screen the MSU netminder on the power play.
Boyle is a rare giant in a program known most for its ability to get the most out of ultra-skilled smallish forwards. Just this week, Comley praised York for revolutionizing the college game in the way that he recruited speed and skill above size, disproving the myth that bigger is better.
Currently, five of the Eagles’ top nine forwards are 5-foot-9 or under, including their most dangerous offensive threat, Nathan Gerbe, who hails from Oxford, Mich., and measures just 5-foot-5 and 165 pounds.
The Last Time It Happened
You would have to dig all the way back to 1987 to find the last Spartan squad that played for a national title.
In an attempt to repeat as back-to-back champions, MSU fell to Gino Gasparini’s North Dakota team complete with the Hrkac Circus — a first line of Tony Hrkac (pronounced Hur-cus), Steve Johnson, and Bob Joyce that is considered by many to be the greatest line combination in NCAA history. If that wasn’t enough, Eddie Belfour played in net for the Sioux, who bested the Spartans 5-3 for their third of seven national championships.
Spartans > Eagles
The Spartans have a decided historical edge against the Eagles, boasting a 16-6-1 record in 23 games. Since BC’s resurgence in the late 90s, the Eagles held a slim 3-2 advantage, including wins over MSU in the 2003 Great Lakes Invitational title game and NCAA West Regional in 2000.
This matchup, however, seems like a no-brainer when dominant mascot theory is employed. The Spartans of “300” lore are pitted against the North American bald eagle, which was endangered until 1995 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department officially downgraded to “threatened.”
Even though Sparty wears a skirt, dominant mascot theory points to the government agency being correct: the BC Eagles were threatened.