Lerg Stands Tall
MSU Freshman Stops 36 Shots for First-Ever Spartans Shutout in NCAAs
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. The past three times Michigan State played in the NCAA Tournament, it was shut out, a dubious distinction of scoring futility.
The Spartans figured if they could get one, the goals would come, but then they got one just 2:14 into the game, on a knuckler, and the goals didn't come.
Instead it was 5-foot-6 freshman goaltender Jeff Lerg, the backup when the season began, who put the team on his back to assure that one goal was all the Spartans would need. Lerg made all 36 stops, none bigger than denying Brett Hemingway off a back door pass during a power play early in the third period.
"We were screaming from the bench," MSU coach Rick Comley said. "(Defenseman Corey) Potter knew he was there, but it was a great pass."
Said Lerg, "We know their power play likes to look back door a lot. I didn't see (Jacob) Micflikier, I don't know if he came out of the corner or what. It looked like he was going to pass, so I just cut across.
"We work on that drill every day, two to three times a week. I knew I had to get my feet to the post, and it's just a good thing he didn't get it over me."
It's that kind of work ethic that won Vicari the No. 1 spot, and has helped overcome his diminutive stature and health issues.
Vicari battles asthma. Two hours prior to each game and practice, he wears an inhaler mask for 15 minutes.
"In all his life, he's probably had to prepare better than any kid because of his size and health," Comley said.
As Dick Umile said Friday, Lerg isn't big, but he plays big. And he's made no bigger saves than the one on Hemingway.
"It was definitely a good feeling," Lerd said. "It came in the middle of the pad. I scrambled to cover, but they hit me in the head on the rebound, and then I just wanted to get it out of there. We had a couple good shot blocks after that."
Dominic Vicari, a junior who started most games the past two seasons, was the No. 1 when the year began. But when the team was struggling — largely not because of Vicari — Comley switched to Lerg. The freshman quickly impressed the Spartans' staff with his poise and preparation.
The switch was hard on Vicari, but he's managed to not let it affect his relationship with Lerg.
"We sit next to each other in the locker room," Lerg said. "He tells me if he sees anything. He's very classy. He's been a real good friend for me."
Lerg was assisted Saturday in two other areas.
First, Michigan State dominated the faceoffs, winning 41 to New Hampshire's 15, an extremely rare margin.
"We struggled on it early," Comley said. "But we matched lines all night. (Bryan) Lerg started taking faceoffs for (Chris) Mueller. ... It's about paying attention to detail."
Second, Michigan State's defense didn't allow a lot of top-flight chances. It was not the way Spartan fans envisioned Michigan State winning NCAA games again when Comley took over for Ron Mason. They expected a more open attack. But at this point, the winning's the thing.
"Some call us a trap team, but we play neutral zone defense," Comley said. "People ask what our system is. We just play by zone."
Said UNH defenseman Brian Yandle, "The whole team defense, they are strong in the neutral zone. They are tough to penetrate. Lerg is great in net. Both goalies played unbelieveable."