Team of the Week: Michigan State
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
To say this has been a trying year, would be an understatement for Michigan State. Just two years removed from a national championship, the Spartans are 9-18-5, spent the first half of the season dealing with numerous season-ending-type injuries to key players, then lost two more players after coach Rick Comley suspended them from the team after an on-ice incident last month.
But having finally recovered from the shock of all that, the last two weekends, the Spartans have eked out 7 of a possible 8 points, relying on the two strengths they have left: sheer grit, and senior goaltender Jeff Lerg.
This past weekend, especially, Michigan State faced red-hot Ohio State, and shut down the Buckeyes, getting a shootout win Friday, and a conventional 2-1 win Saturday, and earned CHN Team of the Week honors.
"We haven't had very many fun Sundays recently," Comley said. "The kids really deserve a lot of credit. We had a really depleted lineup tonight. It's reinforcing that Jeff (Lerg) has been sending the right message and you try to coach in a positive way, despite everything that has gone on. All of a sudden you get two wins against a nationally ranked team that is in the top four in the league and you get excited about another week."
Michigan State was down to 10 forwards Saturday, after Adam Henderson was hurt on Friday. Comley hopes to have Henderson back this weekend, but in the mean time, he was playing defenseman Jeff Petry up front as much as possible in Saturday's game.
"I said it last weekend, we're not going down without a fight," Lerg said. "These guys are still fighting and we know that this is our team right now and that we're not getting anyone back. These guys have an opportunity and they're taking advantage of it."
Michigan State practically needs Lerg to be perfect to win, something that wore on him earlier in this season. But, thing is, he is capable of being that. This past weekend was a good indication. Friday, Michigan State led 1-0 most of the way, until Hunter Bishop tied the game with 11 seconds remaining in regulation. But in the shootout, Lerg stopped Bishop on the last attempt, to give the Spartans the two points.
The next night, Lerg stopped 33 shots, and Petry was able to eke out a third-period goal to give the Spartans the win.
"There's definitely been that mentality going into every game: If I give up one, we win, give up two, we might not," Lerg said. "I try not to put pressure on myself anymore, because you tend to tense up. During the last month, I've been trying to relish my last few games at Munn and being a Spartan. I've been a little more relaxed."
Lerg couldn't be more correct. Michigan State has nine wins this season. In seven of those games, the team has allowed one goal. In the other two, zero goals. In other words, Michigan State has not won a game this season when allowing two goals or more. Remarkable.
On the other hand, there has only been one game where Lerg allowed two goals or fewer and lost, a 2-0 defeat against Lake Superior State. During a particularly ugly stretch in November, a seven-game losing streak, the Spartans scored just six goals (six one-goal games and one shutout) and allowed 27.
"It's not the way I imagined the year going," Lerg said. "I thought it would be tough winning games, but never how it's been. But if you look at the big picture, we've done a good job. We've been down, but not down enough to say we're out of it. A lot of bad things happened for us this year, but once something positive happens, a lot of confidence is gained for the guys."
Before the season started, Michigan State lost seniors-to-be Tim Kennedy and Justin Abdelkader to the pros. Then, A.J. Sturges was lost for the season when he was injured in an off-campus attack. Tim Crowder and Nick Sucharski went down with season-ending injuries. Another forward, Mike Merrifield, decided to return to junior. And Comley dismissed junior defenseman Ryan Turek from the team after he'd played 79 games for the team in little over two seasons. More recently, Shaun Fulton was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
Add in the dismissal of two more players recently, and that's eight players no longer playing since the year began.
It's makes the recent efforts of Lerg and the rest of the team stand out even more, when put in that perspective.
"Obviously I want to go out with a bang and have the best year, but it's been a character building year," Lerg said. "I had things go my way in the past. In the overall scheme of things, I think I'm a better goalie because of it."
Michigan State didn't just win a national championship two years ago, it won 25 games last season, and had a better regular season than the year before. The last time Michigan State program failed to reach 20 wins was 1990-91. The last time it failed to reach 15 wins was 1980-81, Ron Mason's second year.
This year's record is historic in a way that you can practically laugh it off, knowing it's so preposterous, that the program is all-but-certain to bounce back next season.
Which doesn't make it any easier for those going through it right now.
"Overall the senior leadership has been pretty solid," Lerg said. "We have guys who have been here and won a national championship a couple years ago. We've seen the highest of highs. We keep team unity and morale high. We've said, it's like junior hockey, where you walk in the room and you look at the locker next to you, and the nametag could be off because someone was traded. So we've seen it before."
The leadership was tested the day Comley decided to suspend Andrew Conboy and Corey Tropp for the remainder of the season for their role in an on-ice attack on Michigan defenseman Steve Kampfer. Conboy decided to withdraw from school.
"There was some mixed reactions," Lerg said. "When (Comley) first told me, I fell out of my chair. I wasn't expecting to hear that. But in the overall picture, it was a drastic measure on the ice, and he felt he had to take a drastic measure to show we were serious. It's the right move in the overall scheme of things."
Meanwhile, Lerg, who started the year as a possible Hobey Baker Award candidate, is now more focused on the Hockey Humanitarian Award, a distinguished honor in its own right. Lerg is up because of his deep involvement in the community, including work supporting the fight against childhood cancer. Lerg himself overcomes a difficult asthmatic condition to be what many people say is the best money goalie in college hockey over the past four years.
"That's definitely a huge honor. Michigan State has done a good job instilling community is important around here," Lerg said, about being up for the Humanitarian Award. "They instilled it in us as a freshman that guys are involved in the community. We want good people first, hockey players second. I saw the opportunity and ran with it. When I first started doing things, I wasn't thinking about an award."