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March 29, 2008 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Michigan State, Lerg Overcome the Odds Again

by Cole Weinman/CHN Reporter

CC fizzles, Lerg Brilliant in Spartans Win.

By Cole Weinman

It's not often that a defending national champion enters the next season billed as an underdog. Most teams would play scorned, proud even.

However, in the case of the Michigan State Spartans, they don't seem to mind. In fact, they are enjoying the underdog role.

"I just think we came in here with a chip on our shoulder. I think us being the underdogs is like it was last year," Spartans goaltender Jeff Lerg said. "We're the three seed once again, but they don't mean anything. Being the underdog is the best thing for our team because we just thrive on that and keep playing harder and harder."

The Spartans certainly did not look like an underdog during their game with Colorado College on Friday night, battling their way to a 3-1 victory over the hosting Tigers.

All week, the Spartans heard predictions on how they couldn't contend with CC's speed on the Olympic-sized ice, and its offensive prowess.

However, despite the larger ice, and the altitude, the Spartans stepped up to the challenge, and overcame it.

During the week it was a little tougher to adapt, but we had a few good skates on this ice," Lerg said. "We kept the same game plan, and that was playing tough, defensive hockey."

The higher altitude in Colorado Springs did provide some challenges though, as key players with asthmatic conditions were forced to use extreme measures to get through the game. Lerg's condition, in particular, has been well-chronicled, as has the diminutive goaltender's ability to overcome it.

"I felt real comfortable out there," Lerg said. "Last year's national championship game was such a big stage I think it carried over to tonight. But, I was using my breathing machine during each intermission.

"I got more comfortable as got more shots. Hopefully it will be another good performance (Saturday)."

Said MSU coach Rick Comley, "We survived. It was tough, there were guys cramping. ... We felt like we should get him (Lerg) a lot of shots to make sure he made the adjustment (to the altitude)."

LERG SHUTS DOWN TIGERS

Though he only stands a 5-foot-6 tall, Jeff Lerg was a giant in net for Michigan State. The returning NCAA tournament MVP, and Hobey finalist, notched a mind-blowing 40 saves on the evening, stopping all but one shot he saw.

"The first period was important. We struggled getting offense, and Jeff stood on his head," said MSU forward Chris Mueller.

Lerg said, "It definitely helps being on that type of stage. This is my third year in the NCAA tourney, the season is on the line, that's when big players step up and play. We hope we keep playing for another couple weeks."

Lerg shut out the Tigers through almost three periods, extending his NCAA shutout streak from last year to over 85 minutes.

"We were positive having a 0-0 game going into the locker room," said Lerg. "We got a few bounces go our way and a few power-play goals. We had a game plan for the last few weeks, and we have been playing our style for the last few weeks."

THIRD GOAL THE BACKBREAKER

Alternate Captain Chris Mueller's goal late in the second period put the Spartans up 3-0, and all but ended the game.

"It was definitely a huge goal. Big shot by Chris. And with only seven seconds left was it was the backbreaker," senior forward Bryan Lerg said. "Once we got the third one it took the momentum right away from them. When they got the first the building got loud, but we were able to hang on.

"It definitely was the backbreaker, it was good to have Jeff in net, knowing he will give us a chance to win, but that three goal lead helps."

BLOCK PARTY

Jeff Lerg stopped 40 shots from the CC Tigers en route to a 3-1 win, but without some help from the five players in front of him, it may have been many more.

"Our goalie is pretty good and we pick away at things. CC is an outstanding hockey team, dangerous. Our penalty kill and blocking shots were key," Comley said. "It was a very good effort from our kids defensively. "

BRING ON THE IRISH

Things don't get any easier for the Spartans, as they take on Notre Dame on Saturday. Obviously the teams are no strangers. Not only have they become heated CCHA rivals, but MSU defeated Notre Dame in last year's regional final.

"We know Notre Dame will be real fired up," Jeff Lerg said. "We know when we lost to Maine the previous year (in the 2006 NCAAs); we got a chance to replay them and ended up on top, so we know how Notre Dame is feeling this year. "

Mueller said, "They're definitely tight games, we let one slip away up there (South bend, Indiana). We gotta throw who were playing out the window. Whether its Michigan, or Notre Dame or Colorado College, it's a one game season, and it doesn't matter who were playing. Just have to pay well tomorrow."

ONE SEASON AT A TIME

With the Fighting Irish as the last roadblock for the Spartans before another Frozen Four appearance, Michigan State is not looking past the Golden Domers.

For the Spartans, each tournament game is a new season.

"We just keep proving ourselves. We clearly proved we can win last year, and right now we're making a statement," Bryan Lerg said. "We don't need to be a team with high-powered offense, it's the guys in this team and the character that we have in the locker room is what wins championships."

His cousin, Jeff Lerg added, "It was a one-game season before tonight, and it'll be a one-game season (Saturday) night as well."

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