Midwest Regional | Regional Final
Tournament Redeems Michigan State
Spartans Struggled Late in the Season
Notre Dame 1
Snavely, E. Graham
Crowder, J. Abdelkader
Blatchford, J. Paige
Jeff Lerg, 60:00, 19 saves, 1 GA
David Brown, 58:45, 23 saves, 2 GA
MSU 8/16; ND 10/20
Plays: MSU 2-7; ND 0-5
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
"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
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.
AND HEARD AT VAN ANDEL ARENA
INCH's Three Stars of the Midwest Regional
Ryan Thang, Notre Dame
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.
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.
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
• 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,
• 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
• 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."
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.
job by INCH photog Larry Radloff capturing Justin Abdelkader's
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 …
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.
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
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.
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