Senior goaltender and team captain Jeff Lerg has led this Michigan State team to many victories over his legendary career, none more notable than the 2007 NCAA championship run two seasons ago.
But many of his current teammates weren’t around for that string of successes.
If there was any doubt in their minds, however, about the abilities of their captain, they now understand the role Lerg plays very well after this weekend.
Lerg had 28 saves tonight in the hard-earned shutout, while Daultan Leveille and Matt Schepke netted the goals for the Spartans. More importantly, Michigan State is off to an excellent start on the CCHA season with a four-point weekend at home against a nemesis Northern Michigan squad that knocked them out of the league playoffs last year.
The Spartans are now 3-2-1 on the young season, while the Wildcats fall to 2-3-1.
“To get two wins against that team, this early in the year,” said Michigan State Coach Rick Comley. “I’m very happy with that. Power play was a big part of the game. We got a goal, they had multiple opportunities. It decided the game.”
Michigan State carried a 1-0 lead through the last half of the game, time and time again shutting the door on Northern Michigan opportunities. The game wasn’t over until Schepke’s empty-netter in the final ten seconds of the game.
But with their star goaltender in net, the Spartans have to like their chances in such situations. This was the 11th career shutout for the senior.
“That was the best defensive game we played all year,” Lerg said. “Getting the shutout was good. I was real pleased with the way we played.”
In addition to the intense action on the ice, the players had to deal with another issue tonight. The third period was interrupted at 14:01 by a fire alarm in Munn Arena. Officials stopped play and resumed a few minutes later with no complications. However, flashing strobe lights and a recurring siren continued to distract the crowd for another seven-plus minutes of ice before they were finally shut off.
“It was disruptive,” Comley said. “In the end, I think it was to their advantage, I guess. To get two wins against them in the fashion that we did, that gives me a lot to build on.”
Soon after, however, the lights and the fire buzzer sounded again, disrupting play with 6:14 left in the period. This second stoppage lasted several minutes, before officials decided to just play the rest of the game despite the still-active flashing lights and sirens.
Considering how Friday’s game ended, the two squads picked up right where they left off during tonight’s first period. There was a lot of hitting, a lot of opportunities, and a lot of good goaltending. In the scoreless opening session, Northern Michigan led in shots, 12-9.
“It’s so hard to get shots on net,” Comley said. “Right now, we’re not going to score a lot. We just can’t give up much, either. Guys really put it on the line tonight.”
The second period began as more of the same: tough, evenly-matched battles on the ice, resulting in no scoring. But the Spartans finally broke through on a power play, 8:48 into the period. Freshman Daultan Leveille took a crisp, cross-ice pass from Ryan Turek and slapped the puck into the net for his first collegiate goal. The quick passage of the puck gave Wildcats junior goaltender Brian Stewart literally no time to react to the shot.
The explosion of sound in the arena — a combination of the fog horn sounding and the crowd eruption — literally shocked many spectators out of the established torpor from the first 28 minutes of the game.
“A lot of people were doubting us,” Leveille said. “They’re an older, stronger team. Our team was kind of motivated to prove a lot of people wrong. We’re a good team, and we’re just going to keep getting better every weekend.”
The rest of the second period featured tremendous defense by Michigan State as they withstood scoring chance after scoring chance from the Northern Michigan attack. While the Wildcats were clearly getting their chances, including four power-play chances in the period, the Spartans were able to keep their one-goal lead heading into the decisive final period.
“We’re trying to find our game the last couple weeks here,” Lerg said. “We can’t just show up and expect to win. We got to go out and earn it, and I think that’s what we did this weekend with the blocked shots and energy level; they were all there this weekend.”
Next up for Northern Michigan is a home series against Notre Dame, while Michigan State has a home-and-home series next weekend against Western Michigan.