There really wasn’t much separating the Michigan State Spartans and Northern Michigan Wildcats on the ice tonight.

Sure, one team may have outshot the other, and one team may have won more face-offs. In fact, one team actually ‘won’ the game in a shootout,, but this game was as close as they come, all through the night.

Northern Michigan broke the 1-1 tie with 8:14 left in the game when junior wing Ray Kaunisto scored unassisted on a breakaway from mid-ice, beating Spartans’ senior goaltender Jeff Lerg with a nice crossover move.

Michigan State fought back to tie the score with 4:53 left when sophomore wing Andrew Rowe put in a rebound that came out directly in front of the net, beating Wildcats’ junior goaltender Brian Stewart to tie.

It wasn’t until the new CCHA shootout rolled around, after five minutes of scoreless overtime, of course, that this one was decided. Lerg stopped sophomore center Mark Olver on the third penalty shot to give Michigan State the win in its CCHA opener at home, with a 2-1 edge in the shootout.

Seniors Kurt Kivisto and Matt Schepke scored for the Spartans in the shootout, while sophomore Gregor Hanson netted the Wildcats’ only shootout goal.

The CCHA shootout is new this year, and the MSU victory will only count in the league standings. Nationally, the game is considered a tie, so both teams left the ice with 2-2-1 records on the season, although Michigan State gets that extra point in the CCHA standings.

“I really, really went after them this week as far as being competitive and learning lessons and practicing hard,” said Michigan State Coach Rick Comley. “I thought we were a better team tonight than last weekend.”

Although both teams had excellent scoring chances in the final minute of play, overtime played like a lock-down situation, with both teams trying not to give up a goal more than they tried to score one. Since each team would receive a point if the five-minute overtime expired, it was pride and the bonus point on the line in the shootout.

Kivisto scored first to give Michigan State the early shootout lead, and when Lerg stopped NMU senior Nick Sirota’s shot, the home crowd exploded. However, after MSU freshman Tim Buttery failed to get a shot off on his shootout attempt, Hanson tied the shootout at 1-1 with a quick wrister that beat Lerg easily.

Schepke scored on the Spartans’ third shootout attempt to set up Lerg’s game-winning save on Olver.

“When you have Jeff, obviously, you like your chances in a shootout situation with him in goal,” Comley said. “Obviously, a real good win for us, also. Maybe tonight even more than normal times, (the shootout) is an even better situation for us.”

Beyond the shootout, the game was a true scrum, with both teams matching up well against each other despite differences in size, depth and experience.

“It’s a 2-2 tie, and they got a point because they can do breakaways better than us,” Northern Michigan Coach Walt Kyle said. “That’s what it is. We knew we had to play it close to the vest and try to keep it tight and hopefully get some breaks.”

This was the first time the two teams had met since the Wildcats knocked the Spartans out of the CCHA playoffs last season on Michigan State’s home ice. The game didn’t disappoint the 4,884 fans in attendance tonight.

The first period was hard fought and pretty even until Northern Michigan scored with 8:09 left. After controlling the puck down in the Michigan State zone, junior center Matt Butcher took a centering pass from Kaunisto. Butcher’s shot hit the post and got past Lerg.

The edge didn’t last long, however, as Michigan State came right back 25 seconds later with their own score. Rowe took a rebound on the short left circle and nailed it past Stewart for his first goal of the night.

“They didn’t panic, which was good,” said Comley. “Our young guys got ice time tonight and fought very hard. We generated some pretty good chances. I thought it was a pretty good effort, and we needed that badly. I’m just trying to get them to battle and learn and grow and put the puck on the net.”

The two teams fought evenly again in the second period, as NMU built up an edge in face-offs (21-15), but they couldn’t convert that advantage into shots, as MSU led in that category (20-13). Through 40 minutes and a few fisticuffs, the CCHA rivals were still evenly matched.

Stewart finished the game with 35 saves, while Lerg tallied 24 stops in the win.

“Both goalies were good,” Kyle said. “The shots aren’t it; it’s quality shots. I thought it was good goaltending.”

The two teams play again on Saturday night at Munn Arena.

“I think tomorrow will be really tough,” Comley said. “We’ll have them (Northern Michigan) jacked and ready to go to try to get one down here.”