April 7, 2007
2007 NCAA Frozen Four Championship Game
Spartans Grin and Bury It
MSU's persistence pays off with championship win

By Joe Gladziszewski, Jeff Howe, and Jess Myers

Premature celebration: Goaltender Jeff Lerg is mobbed by his Michigan State teammates after Chris Mueller's empty-net goal with less than two seconds remaining clinched the Spartans' championship game win.

ST. LOUIS – You might be surprised to hear what was found in Michigan State's dressing room when Michigan State was trailing Boston College 1-0 after the second period of Saturday's national championship game.

"You know what? Smiles. I walked out of that room and I was smiling and everybody was saying that we were going to get it done," Spartan junior Chris Mueller said. "There was absolutely no panic. I think it's a sign of maturity, but also a sign of young guys trying to have fun. That's what we came here trying to do."

The Spartans are poised and optimistic when facing deficits. It's led them to four wins this year when trailing after two periods, after grabbing three victories in conference play earlier in the year (Dec. 9 at Northern Michigan, Jan. 6 at Miami, and Jan. 12 vs. Alaska). Overconfidence would be the wrong word to use.

Michigan State even trailed in their semifinal game, falling behind 2-0 to Maine before rallying to advance to the championship game.

The mindset and composure in the Michigan State dressing room is a positive reflection on the leadership group which includes captain Chris Lawrence, and assistant captains Bryan Lerg, Chris Mueller, Ethan Graham, and Tyler Howells. They've been through difficult times in the past and have instilled resilience among the Spartans.

One of the most vital teaching points was last year's loss to Maine in the NCAA Tournament, a game that Michigan State trailed 3-0 and eventually lost 5-4.

"I think it was the years coming up, for us (seniors) four years, last year we got down against Maine and we came back but not all the way. I think it's just a building experience that our team has had and we came into this year and all five captains have been there and we stay calm and cool and collected in the locker room, and the coaching staff too. That's the best thing about it, being down 1-0 and nobody panics."

The overall resilience stands out, but it was exemplified in smaller examples during the game. Tim Kennedy's redirection shot missed a wide-open net early in the third period, but he came back to score the game-tying goal. Jim McKenzie blocked a shot and limped off the ice in the second period, but returned for his next shift and helped generate some chances on a Spartan power play.

"We never get down on each other; we never blame anyone for a bad play because everyone makes mistakes. I think we all kind of understand that and we know that there's 60 minutes to a game. We kind of learned that last year against Maine," McKenzie said.

The Spartans' poise and resilience helped them overcome a deficit and win the school's third-ever national championship. After celebrating on the ice, they returned to the locker room with a trophy and inside of the room smiles were found once again.

A Michigan State fan celebrates the Spartans' championship game win.

TITLE SLIPS FROM BC'S GRIP

It was right within their reach.

Boston College let its 1-0 lead slip away in the third period, and everything that had been right in Chestnut Hill over the last couple months turned horribly wrong.

Thirteen straight wins. Hockey East champions. Frozen Four favorites. It all disappeared during the season’s final 10 minutes.

“It’s a hollow feeling,” goaltender Cory Schneider said. “I don’t know what else to say. Two years in a row. It’s really tough to swallow. I thought we had the team to do it this year, but it just didn’t go our way.”

The Eagles were on their heels early in the third period. Michigan State came out of the locker room after the second intermission and attacked right away. The Spartans nearly tied it a minute into the final frame, but Tim Kennedy’s bid from five feet away on an open net sailed wide.

“That first shift, they really came out hard,” Schneider said. “They just missed that open net, and I think we kind of sat back on our heels a little bit after that and weren’t ready for it. There’s no excuse.”

For a moment, BC looked as though it would take the title and run with it. With 15:25 remaining, Joe Rooney stole the puck and led a 2-on-1, short-handed rush down the left side. He fed Brian Boyle at the right point, but his shot was snagged by Jeff Lerg, who made the stop of the night.

“That was a great save,” Boyle said. “I thought I had it. I got a lot of wood on it, put it where I wanted to, and he just came across and made the save. It was an unbelievable save.”

The Spartans tied the game after a defensive miscommunication between Boyle and Mike Brennan. Justin Abdelkader won the draw to Tim Kennedy, who strolled into the BC zone all alone and sniped one past Schneider’s blocker at 9:53.

“We really didn’t know where to be set up on the faceoff,” Boyle said. “I kind of went in halfway on the faceoff on the drop. You’re always taught to go all or nothing. I really didn’t know where I was supposed to be. Mike didn’t know exactly where he was supposed to be or if he was supposed to switch. It was something we really needed to figure out.”

In the game’s final seconds, Boyle tried to feed Joe Rooney, but the Spartans took control and raced down the ice on a 3-on-1 after BC had a slow line change. Abdelkader’s goal with 18.9 seconds left was the latest game-winning goal scored in regulation in national championship history.

“I’m just disappointed,” Boyle said. “I can’t really process it in my head right now. I took a chance, went down, thought we had an odd-man rush, and I turned it over at the blue line. It’s just something that I can’t really put into words. I made a mistake, and they capitalized at the wrong time in the game for that to happen.”

When time officially ran out, it marked the end of the worst period of hockey the Eagles had played since their streak started. And it ended the careers of Boyle and Joe Rooney.

“It felt different this year throughout the course of the game, throughout the course of the week,” Boyle said. “There was just a different atmosphere. We were pretty confident. I don’t think we were too cocky or anything like that. We were just confident in our ability with the way we were playing. If we stuck to that, good things would happen, but that’s not always the case.”

“We were feeling pretty good,” Schneider said about the team’s mentality during the second intermission. “We thought we were playing well. We thought that if we just kept playing the way we were, we would have been all right. But, some penalties there and not picking up a guy in front, and that’s all it takes.”

INCH's Three Stars of the Game

3. Mike Brennan, Boston College
Partnering with forward-turned-defenseman Brian Boyle, Brennan has to think about protecting his own end first. He had a terrific Frozen Four, even though he was hung out to dry on the sequence that led to Justin Abdelkader's game-winner.

2. Tim Kennedy, Michigan State
He scored the Spartans' first goal midway through the third period, then set up Abdelkader's winner with strong work behind the net.

1. Jeff Lerg, Michigan State
The Spartan goaltender could have easily been named Frozen Four most outstanding player for his work in St. Louis. His save on Brian Boyle's shorthanded attempt five minutes in the third period was the biggest play of the game.

Related Coverage

Game Story: Spartans Make a State-ment
Michigan State's dramatic win gave the Spartans their third-ever national title.

All-Tournament Team
Complete with former coach Jeff Sauer's commentary.

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE SCOTTRADE CENTER

• The Spartans knew they were underdogs against Boston College and relished that status, as they did throughout the entire tournament.

"We proved ourselves every night. We took out some big-time teams beating BU and Notre Dame, and people weren't saying we were going to win this game tonight, I know that," Brian Lerg said.

• Some observers compared this year's Spartan club to the Denver Pioneers championship team of 2004 because of their relative underdog status and the very laid-back attitude they exhibited throughout the week in St. Louis.

"There were a couple of things in the newspapers saying that maybe we were a little too loose, but I think that's what won us the national championship," Chris Mueller said.

• On the ice in post-game coverage, ESPN's Clay Matvick was seen interviewing Michigan State Director of Athletics and former hockey coach Ron Mason, who is the all-time wins leader among college hockey coaches.

• Miracle On Ice star John Harrington, who coaches Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota, told INCH on Saturday that he’d like to see the D-III championship game added to the Friday events at the Frozen Four in future years. Tom Jacobs, the NCAA’s director of championships, said the idea of moving the small-school title game back a few weeks has been discussed, and he expects it will be considered again when the hockey committees meet over the summer, but no action toward that end has been taken.

• The St. Louis Sports Commission organizers did an outstanding job putting together a fan-friendly weekend for the college hockey nation. Their efforts were underscored on Saturday afternoon when a visit to historic Union Station, a few blocks from the rink, revealed outdoor food booths, kids’ games and participants from the Skills Challenge signing autographs all while being serenaded by the Spartan Brass. In just six years we’ve come a long, long way from the “ghost town with a hockey rink” we saw in Albany to a full weekend of Frozen Four events.

• Michigan State left wing Tim Kennedy on the first period injury that forced him to the locker room: “I was cutting across the ice and a guy stuck his knee out, which snapped my head back and my groin moved someway it shouldn’t move. I came in and the trainer got some special medicine on me and got me back out there to play.”

• Michigan State senior captain Chris Lawrence: “I was sitting in my stall crying before the game and then somebody asked me if I was going to use a stick. Here we were 10 minutes before start and I hadn’t taped my stick yet.”

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

St. Louis embraced the Frozen Four and the tourism industry made certain that the visitors from assorted college hockey locales were made to feel welcome. During tours of the famous local monument and brewery, constant references to the Frozen Four were made by tour guides.

Awesome gesture by Boston College coach Jerry York for allowing the final 1.7 seconds of the game to expire without a face off, and without a minor penalty against Michigan State because …

When Chris Mueller scored the empty-net goal to make the score 3-1, the Spartan players emptied the bench and discarded their gloves and sticks all over the ice and huddled near the end boards even though there was time remaining in the game. Arena staff also opened the doors to begin setting up for the post-game ceremony.

ESPN's production of the game did not include high-definition transmission for those with HD capabilities.