The Return of Sparty
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last season, Michigan State fell short of a Frozen Four, and though the season marked a resurgence of sorts, so many key players graduated or left early, it left the Spartans lacking in the ever-necessary experience category.
As a result, it was often a season of frustration for coach Rick Comley, with his team holding an abundance of talent, but all to often, lapsing into funks that threatened the season.
Comley didn't know what to expect this weekend, and that's why it was all the more satisfying to see it come together. As a result, this Spartan team, perhaps unexpectedly, surpassed last year's group, and is on the way to St. Louis after defeating Notre Dame, 2-1.
"Last year we learned how to win," Lawrence said. "We lost some key guys, but I think that through the stretches last year, we had some tough games and coming back from my freshman and sophomore year was really up and down. After the New Year, coach said we found our resiliency and we found ways to win. We didn't win pretty.
"We were loose today. It was a good loose. The guys were ready, the guys were focused. The guys were enjoying the moment."
Just by virtue of playing Notre Dame, however, this game wasn't easy. The Irish haven't lost many games this season, and for good reason. And no cross-league subjective comparisons were necessary to judge whether Notre Dame was legitimately stronger than Michigan State this season — all one had to do was look at the CCHA standings.
But the Irish did look vulnerable coming off a double overtime win against Alabama-Huntsville in Friday's opener. And as Michigan State built a 2-0 lead, confidence grew. But it wasn't a 31-win season for Notre Dame for nothing.
"They just kept coming at us and at us," said Comley, who returns to the Frozen Four for the first time since leading Northern Michigan to the 1991 national championship. "The BU team (Friday) night was tough, this team was very tough.
"As we've done all year, we're a resilient hockey team. We have a tendency to get ahead and give up leads; you never know what’s going to happen. It came right down to the wire. So obviously we're very thrilled to be going to St. Louis."
For the Irish, it was a tough blow to a program that had never seen these levels before. It had overcome its lack of experience all year long, as Jackson pointed out after winning the CCHA tournament final over Michigan.
Nevertheless, he pointed to it as a factor Saturday.
"State is a little more experienced then we are in these types of environments," Jackson said. "(Friday) night had some impact on tonight but I think it worked against both teams. We were sharp in some ways but not sharp in others. Our defensive intensity was good but our offensive intensity wasn't quite what it needed to be and I think a lot of that had to do with the extra price you pay around the net.
"We actually came alive in the third period but something was missing and I'm sure some of that it had a little to do with fatigue and credit to Michigan State their defense blocked some people out."
One of the reasons why Jackson is a great coach is his attention to detail, so it stands to reason that it was a thing like faceoffs — the often overlooked important factor in a game — that irked him.
"Puck possessions of the faceoffs," Jackson said. "We are a pretty good faceoff team, but one team we had trouble with this season was Michigan State. It was a huge factor in both goals. One led to a penalty and one led to a goal. Both goals were direct results of faceoffs, one on the power play and one five on five."
And then there was 5-foot-6 MSU sophomore goalie Jeff Lerg.
"When I'm on my game, I can be as good as anyone in the country," Lerg said, and who could doubt him Saturday? "If I play my game and keep things simple, I know if I make all the saves I'm supposed to plus two or three big ones, we’ll get the win. I felt confident."
Said Tim Kennedy: "This team knew what had to be done and we got it done. We knew if we came out and took care of business, we had a pretty good chance of moving on."
And move on they do, to the Spartans' first Frozen Four since Ryan Miller was between the pipes.