The University of Alaska Nanooks knew they let a golden opportunity get away from them on Friday night, and given another chance tonight, they took the bull by the horns and locked it up good.
Tied at one goal apiece entering the third period, the Nanooks jumped all over the host Michigan State Spartans for the final 20 minutes, scoring twice and earning two key points in a tight conference race for third place.
With the 3-1 win, No. 18 Alaska improves its overall record to 10-6-4, including a 8-5-3-2 mark in CCHA contests. Meanwhile, a disappointing season continues for Michigan State, as they drop to 6-13-3 on the season, 3-9-2-2 in conference play.
“Our guys did a good job responding,” said Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson. “We made a few adjustments after video and practice this morning. Our group moved the puck a lot better tonight, which helps you transition and enabled us to get pucks deep.”
The Nanooks took a 2-1 lead on a power-play goal 4:55 into the third period when freshman defenseman Joe Sova took a pass from freshman defenseman Cody Butcher to beat Spartans’ senior goaltender and captain Jeff Lerg for the marker.
“When the power play is struggling, you have to get more shots on net,” Ferguson said. “You have to get bodies in front of the net. You couldn’t have drew it up any better. The way they executed it, as far as having the screen and getting the shot, it’s pretty simple, old-time, power-play hockey.”
Alaska added to its lead with another goal with 5:32 remaining when Nanooks’ sophomore center Derek Klassen put a shot on net from near the right boards and slipped it past Lerg.
Michigan State had a few chances in the final minutes to score, but as it has been all season for the Spartans (12.4 percent on the power play), they didn’t convert on a special teams opportunity. As a result, they couldn’t put together back-to-back home wins on the weekend.
“What haunts us, haunts us, I guess,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said. “Our inability to score continues to haunt us.”
The Spartans now have their most losses in a season since 2004-05, when they went 20-17-4, the last year they failed to make the NCAA Tournament. After three straight appearances in the NCAA Regional Finals, including the 2007 championship, Michigan State will most probably be on the outside looking in this year when the tournament rolls around.
“You can’t continue to score one goal a game,” added Comley. “Once they get the lead, that’s their style of play. They can make it tough on you.”
The first period was a relatively quiet affair, with few scoring opportunities for either team. While there were a lot of shots in the first 20 minutes, both goalies were on their games early tonight. Each team had one power-play opportunity, and Michigan State out-shot Alaska overall (16-13) in the period.
However, there certainly weren’t any “Ah!” moments when a goal seemed imminent, or even likely.
The second period began as more of the same, a lot of back-and-forth without any true scoring opportunities. With 6:42 left in the period however, Lerg stopped a wicked slap shot from the high zone. He could not, however, corral the rebound, and Klassen was able to bury the puck for the 1-0 lead.
“I was real proud that our guys stuck with it,” said Ferguson. “The last five, six games for us, we’ve been in the situation where it’s been tight going down to the end. I was real happy how they responded.”
Less than 45 seconds later, Michigan State players in front of the net felt they had pushed the puck through a scrum into the goal, but a video review upheld the on-ice call of no goal. Just like Friday night’s game, however, the video denial led directly to a renewed Spartans’ surge.
With 5:05 remaining in the second, senior center Tim Crowder put a shot on goal from the high zone and freshman wing Andrew Conboy deflected it into the net past Nanooks’ freshman goaltender Scott Greenham to tie the score.
Michigan State drew a penalty soon thereafter, but they were unable to ride the momentum to another goal in the second period, setting the stage for the Nanooks’ third-period surge.
“We played well enough to have the lead in the hockey game, and you’re a different team when you have the lead,” Comley said. “There’s not much you can do to accelerate the process of scoring goals. I wish there was an easy formula for all of a sudden turning a team that scores one goal a game into a team that scores four.”
Next weekend, Alaska faces No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend for two key CCHA games. Meanwhile, Michigan State gets a week off before traveling to Oxford, OH to face No. 2 Miami on January 16-17.