April 5, 2007
NCAA Frozen Four Notebook
Michigan State gets defensive
Spartans ratchet up intensity in its own end after Maine scores early twice

By Jeff Howe, Joe Gladziszewski and Mike Eidelbes

Michigan State defenseman Ethan Graham jostles for position with Maine's Michel Léveillé.

ST. LOUIS – When Maine jumped out to a 2-0 lead 3:26 into the game, it wasn't a matter of Michigan State making adjustments. They knew what they were doing wrong; it was just a matter of playing better.

Maine's first two goals were noteworthy because of the times they were scored, at 23 seconds by Keith Johnson and 3:24 by Josh Soares, but also for the manner in which they were scored. The Black Bears generated the chance by starting the play working the end boards, and the goal scorer was wide open with plenty of space in front of the net.

"Obviously it was a slow start. They came out flying at us just like BU did and we weren't ready for it," Ethan Graham said. "We knew what we were doing wrong. It wasn't magic or anything, we just fixed it."

When these teams played in the East Regional final in 2006 in Albany, N.Y. Maine jumped out to a 3-0 lead, so the Spartans had bad memories of what happened then.

"I knew the guys weren't too uptight or nervous, when that happened I was just thinking, 'I wonder what they're showing on ESPN right now, if they're showing highlights from last year.'"

After Maine's early flurry they struggled to generate any quality chances 5-on-5. The Spartans were better by concentrating on the fundamentals of defensive-zone coverage.

"We wanted to take away the little things they do well, they shoot pucks well and cycle well," Graham said. "The guys in front who tip pucks, we wanted to take their sticks away. They had their chances, but we weathered most of them."

And the defense led the way to allow Michigan State's forwards to control play in the zone and generate chances on the Maine defense, much like the Black Bears did against the Spartan blueliners in the opening minutes of the game.

MAINE'S FAST START TURNS SOUR

After a rough start, Michigan State's defense regrouped to hold the Maine offensive attack at bay.

It was almost too good to be true.

Maine jumped ahead of Michigan State, 2-0, finding the back of the net twice in its first four shots 3:24 into the game, and the Black Bears looked like they were well on their way to a berth in the national championship on Saturday.

And, they were a couple bad breaks away from extending that lead, too. Teddy Purcell hit the crossbar, and a puck dancing alone in the crease got cleaned up by a Spartan defenseman. On the other end, Michigan State batted two pucks out of the air into the net. Ben Bishop must have thought he was at Busch Stadium and not the Scottrade Center.

They were so close, and now they're so far away. Maine entered the game with a 12-3-1 record when leading after the first period and hadn't blown a game when it was leading by a pair all season.

"It could have developed a lot of different ways," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "In this case, they did an excellent job not giving up the third goal, and before you know it, the momentum swings to them."

"There were a couple posts here and there, but they got the bounces," Maine forward Michel Léveillé said. "We could have played a little harder in the second, and we kind of let them take the momentum."

And the game.

INCH's Three Stars of the Game

3. Keith Johnson, Maine
The forward scored Maine's first goal 23 seconds into the game and assisted on linemate Josh Soares' goal three minutes later that made the score 2-0 in favor of the Black Bears. Johnson, Soares, and Michel Léveillé were outstanding , especially in the first period.

2. Jim McKenzie, Michigan State
The rugged winger scored the Spartans' insurance goal midway through the third period, fighting off a Maine defenseman as he drove to the net, getting his stick on the ice just in time to shovel a feed from linemate Chris Mueller past Black Bears' goalie Ben Bishop.

1. Chris Mueller, Michigan State
In addition to his perfect set-up of McKenzie's goal, Mueller got the Spartans back into the game about four minutes after Maine jumped out to an early 2-0 edge. He outworked a Maine skater for a loose puck behind the Black Bear goal, got a shot off that Bishop stopped, but swatted the rebound out of midair for his 15th goal of the season.

Related Coverage

Game Story: Michigan State S-capes
Michigan State shakes an early two-goal deficit, rallying for a 4-2 win.

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE SCOTTRADE CENTER

• The mother-in-law of Maine coach Tim Whitehead passed away Thursday morning.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to Dena and Tim and their families," University of Maine president Robert Kennedy said in a statement.

• Trailing 2-0 just 3:24 into their semi-final game with Maine, Michigan State sophomore goaltender Jeff Lerg was visited by senior captain Chris Lawrence at the first television timeout.

"He was really just joking around actually," said Lerg about the conversation. "The puck had just hit my blocker and landed on top of the net so he said it was a good thing I wasn't a couple of inches taller or that would have been in. He was joking around and trying to get me to laugh a little bit. That's how good a captain he is. He knew how important the game was but was joking around and letting me know that he believed.

• Spartan defenseman Chris Snavely, who scored his second goal of the season this afternoon, was a healthy scratch for Michigan State's first six games.

• Maine goaltender Ben Bishop, a native of nearby Des Peres, Mo., earned a healthy ovation when his name was announced during pre-game introductions. Michigan State defenseman Jeff Dunne, who hails from Grover, Mo., didn't receive quite as large of a response, but was warmly welcomed when introduced.

• Maine's goal 23 seconds into the game likely gave Michigan State fans flashbacks to the Spartans' last Frozen Four appearance in 2001, when North Dakota's Kevin Spiewak scored on the seemingly impenetrateble Ryan Miller — that year's Hobey Baker Award winner — a little over a minute into the first period of MSU's 2-0 semifinal loss.

• Today’s first semifinal was the highest scoring Frozen Four game since Northern Michigan beat Boston University in the 1991 title match, 8-7 in three overtimes. It’s the highest scoring semifinal contest since 1976, when Michigan Tech topped Brown, 7-6, in two overtimes. Minnesota and Maine combined for 11 goals back in 1989 when the Gophers downed the Black Bears, 7-4, in a semifinal in St. Paul, Minn.

• With this afternoon's win, Michigan State becomes the first CCHA team to advance to the NCAA championship game since Michigan won the national title in Boston in 1998.

• A nice gesture by both teams following the game: After completing the post-game handshake, the Spartans skated over to the corner of the rink where the majority of the MSU fans were seated and saluted them. Maine had left the ice, but returned to the playing surface from its locker room to show its appreciation to its fans.

• Now we know what he does in the off-season: Spotted among a gaggle of green-clad North Dakota fans in the lower bowl of the Scottrade Center during Thursday afternoon's semifinal was the jolliest of elves, Santa Claus. Presumably, he was taking notes on who was being naughty and nice. And he picked the stuff that wasn't called, too.

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

Having an arena that has all the bells and whistles is nice, but it's what you do with them that counts. So credit to the Scottrade Center video board operators for their creative use of video clips following goals. Among the best: a shot of dancing penguins from the movie "Happy Feet" and a clip of "Family Guy" patriarch Peter Griffin cutting a rug.

Loyal INCH readers know we're huge fans of pep bands, and shouldn't be surprised to see one of the ensembles earn mention in this space. Both bands in attendance at Thursday's first semifinal were terrific, but Maine earns special mention for its rendition of the Killers' hit, "Mr. Brightside."

For a team that scored twice in the first 3:26, the wind certainly emptied from Maine's sails rapidly. In fact, after Michigan State's Chris Mueller scored to cut the lead to 2-1, the Black Bears struggled to generate prime scoring opportunies, rarely challenging Spartan goaltender Jeff Lerg from that point forward.

For as much as the NCAA preaches that its athletes are, ahem, student-athletes, you'd think the organization would have a better eye for detail when producing materials for its championship events. For example, the official NCAA web site touted the start of the "Forozen Four" Thursday, and credentials issued to media photographers read "PHOTOGRAGHER."

WHAT'S NEXT

Michigan State is looking for its third national championship, having previously won in 1966 and 1986. The Spartans are playing in the national championship game for the first time since 1987, when they lost to North Dakota at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.