With 15 minutes
left in the NCAA championship game and 6'7" Boston College captain Brian
Boyle bearing down on him with the puck, Michigan State's 5'6" sophomore
goaltender Jeff Lerg was thinking big. Stay tall, he told himself. It was a
huge moment for both players: A goal by the overpowering All-America forward
would give his team, winner of 13 straight and the heavy favorite entering the
Frozen Four, a 2--0 lead; a save by the elfin netminder would give his team, a
No. 3 regional seed that had exceeded expectations by merely getting into the
16-team tournament, a rallying point. Boyle hesitated, then shot over the
falling goaltender, but Lerg reached above his head to glove the puck before
hitting the ice. "Given the circumstance," says Spartans coach Rick
Comley, "it was one of the best saves I've ever seen."
reflexes indeed sparked Michigan State to a riveting 3--1 upset. The Spartans
tied the score 1--1 on a power play five minutes later, when sophomore forward
Tim Kennedy beat Eagles goalie Cory Schneider on a breakaway. Michigan State
then outshot BC 9--3 over the last 10 minutes and finally got the decisive goal
with 18.9 seconds left. Forward Justin Abdelkader fired a right-circle wrist
shot off the goal post, then skated to the slot while Kennedy retrieved the
puck behind the net; Kennedy split two Eagles defensemen with a touch pass to
Abdelkader, who converted the shot.
The Spartans' first
NCAA hockey title since 1986 was a stunning defeat for the Eagles, one of
college hockey's swiftest, most skilled teams. If BC was a symphony on ice,
Michigan State was dull and ugly by design--forcing foes into errant passes and
neutral-zone clutter. "We're not a pretty team," says Comley. "We
crash the net, play the walls and force teams to the outside."
The loss of last
season's snipers, Drew Miller (who plays for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' AHL team
in Portland) and David Booth (now on the Florida Panthers), left Comley with
little firepower and no choice but to coax his players into playing a
disciplined trapping system. "I wondered if we might have to patch a team
together," he says. "I guess the glue worked." But it took awhile.
The Spartans were 7-8-1 in December before mastering Comley's strategy. In the
Frozen Four semifinal against Maine, the team with the nation's best power
play, Michigan State committed only two penalties and scored twice by batting
pucks out of midair. "For a second," says Maine goalie Ben Bishop,
"I thought I was playing their baseball team." The Spartans finished
the tournament on a 19-5-2 roll.
More than any other
player, Lerg embodied his team's discipline and resilience. Diagnosed at age
four with severe asthma, he's had seven attacks over the last two years, but
most were triggered by food allergies. During the NCAA regionals last month,
Lerg suffered an allergic reaction at a team dinner and had to rush back to the
hotel with the Spartans' doctor to get an injection. The next day he started
the game and beat New Hampshire 1--0 for the first NCAA tournament shutout in
school history. Lerg, who allowed five goals in four tournament games, delights
in disproving naysayers. "It's personal," he says. "I want to
outplay the other goaltender and make one highlight save a game."
loss was a bitter pill for BC coach Jerry York, whose team dropped a tight 2--1
game to Wisconsin in last year's final, but he was classy to the end. After
junior Chris Mueller's empty-net goal gave Michigan State a 3--1 lead with 1.7
seconds to play and the Spartans began throwing their sticks and gloves in the
air, York asked officials to let the clock expire so as not to interrupt the
celebration. It was a night when little things made a big difference.