By Matt Mackinder/Michigan State Beat Writer
Michigan State will miss CCHA championship weekend for the first time in 17 years after losing to Northern Michigan in a quarterfinal series last weekend in East Lansing.
Matt Butcher's overtime goal on a power-play rush gave NMU a 3-2 win over Michigan State on Sunday night at Munn Ice Arena. The Wildcats now advance to next weekend's CCHA Championship weekend in Detroit, while Michigan State won't be there for just the second time in 27 seasons.
Michigan State had forced the overtime session with a goal by Nick Sucharski with just over three minutes remaining in regulation.
Both goaltenders were superb in the game. NMU's Brian Stewart finished with 41 stops, while Jeff Lerg made 34 stops. Lerg allowed just six goals in the series, but the Spartans struggled to score on Stewart in games two and three, putting just three goals past the netminder after a five-goal outburst in game one Friday night.
"We told our guys that if we scored on the power play tonight we were going to win," Northern Michigan head coach Walt Kyle said. "(Michigan State) had been so good on their power play that we had to expect them to do something. I thought that five-on-five there were times that we played very well and we had our chances. Their power play was much more effective than ours throughout the weekend."
"I thought the week off kind of hurt us; we just never seemed to get back to where we were," added MSU head coach Rick Comley. "But we played pretty well. I thought Stewart was magnificent. I thought their team played hard, worked within themselves, and I thought Walt did a really good job with that team. We had plenty of scoring opportunities, but we just couldn't get the puck in enough. We were fortunate enough to be able to tie it. You had a feeling in overtime that they were going to spring it, that we were going to have all kinds of pressure on them, and they were just going to pop something loose, and then they got the chance with the power play."
Andrew Sarauer and Phil Fox scored NMU's other goals and captain Bryan Lerg tallied the other goal for the Spartans.
"We averaged 43 shots a game and when you're generating 43 shots, you're giving yourself a pretty good chance to score," Kyle said. "It was hard-fought series, I knew it would be, and Northern finished the year like we all thought they would. This was going to be the toughest series and it turned out that way."
Still, Comley thinks MSU will get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"Our league, because it was so top-heavy this year, has really hurt things," said Comley. "Knowing the system pretty well, I would think we'll probably get in, unless there are two or three upsets in the other leagues. But who knows. We'll just have to wait and see."
Saturday night, Stewart made 42 saves and Ray Kaunisto got the game-winner eary in the third period as the Wildcats took a 2-1 win. Tim Crowder scored on the power play late in the second period to tie the game, but MSU could not solve Stewart in four extra-man opportunities in the third period. Lerg made 28 saves, including 12 in the final frame.
Friday night, Michigan State tallied three power-play goals and blew open a tight game with three third-period scores to post a 5-1 victory. Tim Kennedy and Crowder each had a goal and an assist and Lerg made 24 saves in the win. Bryan Lerg, Justin Abdelkader and Sucharski also scored for the Spartans, while Mark Olver scored for NMU and Stewart finished with 35 saves in 53:44 before Derek Janzen made three saves over the final 6:16.
NMU (19-19-4) faces top-ranked Michigan at 4:30 p.m. this Friday in the first semifinal in Detroit. The Spartans end the playoffs with a 24-11-5 overall record.