March 24, 2007
Midwest Regional | Regional Final
NCAA Tournament Redeems Michigan State
Spartans Struggled Late in the Season

By James Jahnke

Michigan State 2,
Notre Dame 1
Team Goal Str
Time Assists
First Period
No scoring

Second Period

1-MSU Chris Mueller (14) PP
6:04 C. Snavely, E. Graham
Third Period
2-MSU Tim Kennedy (17) PP
5:59 T. Crowder, J. Abdelkader
1-ND Evan Rankin (4) EV
14:52 B. Blatchford, J. Paige
Goaltending
MSU: Jeff Lerg, 60:00, 19 saves, 1 GA
ND: David Brown, 58:45, 23 saves, 2 GA
Penalties: MSU 8/16; ND 10/20
Power Plays: MSU 2-7; ND 0-5
Attendance: 4,839

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Anyone who saw Michigan State skate off the ice after a loss to conference doormat Bowling Green – in the regular-season finale … at home … on Senior Night – would have had a tough time imagining that bunch of Spartans earning a spot in the Frozen Four this season.

But that's the caper that the Green and White pulled off Saturday night at Van Andel Arena, holding off top-seeded Notre Dame, 2-1, to extend their improbably successful season to St. Louis.

MSU, which finished third in the CCHA in both the regular season and playoffs and was the No. 3 seed at this Midwest Regional, got goals from Chris Mueller (in the second period) and Tim Kennedy (in the third), then fought off a frantic Irish comeback.

"This means a lot," said MSU coach Rick Comley, who earned the biggest win of his up and-down five-year career in East Lansing. "It's very rewarding. Ours is a program that is judged on going to Frozen Fours. Anything less isn't tolerable in our marketplace."

Five-foot-6 Spartan goalie Jeff Lerg, who admits that he personalizes matchups against top-tier goaltenders such as Notre Dame's David Brown, capped his regional-MVP performance with 19 saves Saturday. Notre Dame's lone goal deflected past him off Evan Rankin with 5:08 to play.

The Spartans celebrate their win over Notre Dame, and berth in the Frozen Four. Michigan State's semifinal opponent, Maine, knocked MSU out of last year's national tournament in the East Regional Final.

"Our best player was our best player when he had to be," said team captain Chris Lawrence, who rallied the green-clad crowd with WWE-style "gimme some noise" arm flails during the post-game celebration.

"It was one of the happiest moments of my life," Lerg chimed in.

But, as it has been for MSU all season, it wasn't easy.

With ND on the power play and featuring an empty net, the Spartans had two odd-man rushes in the dying seconds. But instead of icing the game with an ENG, the Irish defense blocked both shots and kept the suspense boiling until the end. What churned even more stomachs was that MSU defenseman Jeff Dunne actually pinched in on one of the rushes, giving the Irish unbelievable numbers coming back the other way.

"It was almost a 4-on-0," Comley grinned. "You know, how would that look? You wouldn't be saying too much about the coach then."

But MSU's nearly impenetrable defense and spark-plug goalie made sure folks will be talking about the coach – and the rest of the team for at least two weeks to come.

FATIGUE FAZES IRISH

Notre Dame was the nation's top-ranked team for most of 2007, but their ascension into the hockey elite hit a major speed bump along the fast track. The Fighting Irish's forwards were bottled up before they reached the dangerous areas of the zone almost without fail Saturday.

"In a way, it's easier for us to play against a high-scoring team," ND coach Jeff Jackson said. "It's a little more difficult to play a team that mirrors us in a lot of ways. Our defensive intensity was good, but our offensive intensity wasn't there."

Both teams admitted to being tired after trying circumstances Friday: Notre Dame having played into double overtime against Alabama-Huntsville, and MSU not closing out its opener until after midnight. The Irish took 10 penalties in the regional final, the Spartans eight.

"That's where last night showed up a little bit," Jackson said. "They weren't undisciplined penalties, they were step-behind penalties."

Jackson also singled out face offs as a determining factor in the game. Still, despite Saturday's failed bid for the Frozen, Notre Dame could be proud of its breakout season. Two years after winning five games total, the Irish captured the CCHA's regular-season and playoff championships and were a goal away from sightseeing in The Lou.

"It means a lot more to play for Notre Dame now," Jackson said.

SEEN AND HEARD AT VAN ANDEL ARENA

INCH's Three Stars of the Midwest Regional

3. Ryan Thang, Notre Dame
We feel a little slimy giving this to the freshman forward after he basically was a no-show Saturday, but his stellar Friday performance, including the overtime winner against Alabama-Huntsville, stands out in a regional devoid of stars.

2. Tim Kennedy, Michigan State
While his stickhandling can be nerve-wracking in the defensive zone, his offensive playmaking is something the Spartans can't do without. He had Saturday's winner, plus a goal and an assist against BU.

1. Jeff Lerg, Michigan State
Even more than his numbers (which were outstanding) Lerg's importance can't be overstated because of the confidence he gives the team. He was in control all weekend, giving up just one goal in each game while also making a couple of momentum-changing stops.

• Attendance was announced as 4,839, although the crowd seemed bigger than that. The fans were pretty evenly split between the teams in both numbers and vigor.

• Notre Dame's band, no doubt inspired by the temperate weather outside the rink, dusted off numbers by the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett before the game.

• While MSU's band mostly ran through funereal versions of arena-rock staples, the pride of the Spartans did do a solid job with the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme song during the second intermission.

• Michigan State is slated to play at North Dakota in next season's U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, we learned.

• During the out-of-town scoreboard segments of the evening, Van Andel's P.A. announcer made a point to read Michigan's score first, followed by North Dakota's. When the final – Michigan, 5, North Dakota, 8 – was announced, Spartans and Irish united in cheer.

• Michigan State defenseman Daniel Vukovic suffered a knee injury behind his own net and had to be helped off the ice early in the second period. Comley said it will be close as to whether Vukovic can play in the Frozen Four.

• When Notre Dame cut its deficit to one goal late in the third period, more than one Sparty supporter had to flash back to the football season, when the Irish gridders erased a 19-point second-half deficit to win, 40-37, at Spartan Stadium.

• Speaking of pigskin, MSU alum Jeff Jackson was asked if the loss was harder considering it came against his alma mater. "I'm only an alum when I root for the football team and basketball team."

• But, as usual, Comley delivered the zinger of the night. After Kennedy alluded to how Comley has been coaching longer than Kennedy has been alive, the smiling coach interjected with the deadpan, "Remember the guy who used to be on the power play?"

• More Comley: "Notre Dame is a very predictable team, and I mean that in a good way. They're probably the most-systematic team in the nation."

• A leftover from Friday: Boston University coach Jack Parker made a pitch on behalf of goaltender John Curry for the Hobey Baker Award. "We've never had a goalie at Boston University as valuable to his team as John Curry. If you take it as value added to a team, John Curry should win it."

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

Lerg turned in the save of the weekend about halfway through Saturday's first period. ND forward Kevin Deeth came unabated down the slot, deked to his left and tried to slide it under the scrambling Lerg. But the little guy dived and got his paddle down to effectively kick the Irish in the Deeth. "Lucky save," Lerg said.

An apparent Michigan State goal was correctly disallowed in the second period. Spartan sophomore Justin Abdelkader (9) clearly interfered with David Brown inside the blue paint.

Great job by INCH photog Larry Radloff capturing Justin Abdelkader's foray

into the crease on MSU's waved-off goal in the second period. He and his picture were the stars of the press box at intermission, because …

The limited-replay policy in NCAA tournament buildings is ludicrous. Fans and media alike are entitled to get a second (or third) look at the action – just like TV viewers – especially for pivotal plays such as Jim McKenzie's no-goal in the second period. But, in the interest of not creating controversy, the NCAA nips the TV-feed replays in the bud, thereby creating more.

Not only weren't fans in the building privy to a replay of McKenzie's disputed goal, which would have opened the scoring early in the second period, but an explanation never came through the public-address system, either. Another example of how people at a game are always the last to know what's going on. The Spartans broke the ice with Mueller's goal about a minute and a half after Abdelkader negated McKenzie's tally.

Notre Dame didn't bring players to the post-game news conference because they were "mourning." We understand it was a tough loss, but UAH and BU managed to overcome their grief and meet with the media on Friday. It's easy to talk after a win. What really shows character and grace is to do so after a loss.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Spartans can book their travel arrangements for St. Louis, where they’ll get a rematch against the Maine team that ended their season in a regional final last year. It’s MSU’s first trip to the Frozen Four since 2001, when the nation’s No. 1 team was upset, 2-0, by North Dakota in a national semifinal in Albany.

Notre Dame loses most of its back end to graduation, including Hobey Baker candidate David Brown in the crease and tried-and-true defensemen Wes O’Neill, Noah Babin, and Tom Sawatske. The Irish also will part ways with some grinders up front, but most of the team’s offensive talent is expected to return. Foremost among those giving hope to fans in South Bend are forwards Erik Condra, Kevin Deeth, Ryan Thang and Garrett Regan, plus a heralded incoming rookie class.