Michigan State wears down Maine, heads to title game


ST. LOUIS -- Michel Leveille came cruising down the right wing and fired a shot on Jeff Lerg.

The Michigan State goaltender made the blocker save on the Maine captain, and then the puck deflected up and over the 5-foot-6 Lerg and landed safely on top of the net to draw the whistle.

"We got a break when it hit his blocker and kind of just settled on top of the net," Spartans coach Rick Comley said. "If that goes in, I'm not sure you're going to come back from being down three.

"Once he got that, you could just see his confidence."

After allowing two goals on Maine's first four shots, Lerg shut the door on the next 27 Black Bear attempts.

At the same time, the Michigan State players in front of Lerg stuck to their game plan, and eventually wore down Maine to post a 4-2 win and advance to Saturday's national championship game against Boston College (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

The win moved the Spartans (25-13-3), who haven't won a national title since 1986, into the final college hockey game of the year for the first time since 1987 (when they lost to North Dakota). It also marks the first time a CCHA team will play for the title since Michigan in 1998.

"We expected them to come out flying, and we just didn't match it in the first five minutes," Lerg said. "But after that we really played a great game. Obviously it's not a good feeling to look up at the scoreboard and it's already 2-0.

"But I told myself that it's a 60-minute game and if they win the first five minutes so be it. If we win the last 55 we'll be alright."

Mission accomplished.

Lerg finished with 29 saves, including 12 of the Grade A variety. In five career NCAA tournament games, Lerg now has a 1.60 goals against average and a .946 save percentage.

The start of Thursday's first national semifinal was very reminiscent of last year's East Regional final when Maine jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first nine minutes and then held on for a 5-4 win.

"We do this a lot," said center Chris Mueller, who scored MSU's first goal shortly after that Lerg blocker save. "We don't want to do it, but there was no panic.

"I think the big thing that played into this game was that Maine ended our season last year. We've thought for 365 days how Maine ended our season. We just had to get the job done."

The Spartans went on to tie the game at 2-2 and then finished off their four unanswered goals with a pair in the third period. The game-winner came at 5:11 as center Nick Sucharski scored his ninth of the year when poked a loose puck underneath Maine goalie Ben Bishop off a goal-mouth scramble.

Maine came into the game converting a nation's best 25.7 percent on the power play, but went 0-for-2 (4 shots) on the night. As much credit as Lerg deserves for keeping MSU in the game, the Spartans also deserve a lot of credit for staying out of the box.

"I think the strength that we drew from Maine is that we knew them," Comley said. "Our teams are identical style-wise and I thought we matched up really well. So I didn't have to sell [our players] on doing anything other than playing our game.

"But [BC] presents a completely different challenge as far as speed and get up and go. Where Maine has the one line and [Teddy] Purcell who's a tremendous young kid, [BC sends] a lot of people at you with that skill."

The kind of skill that means Michigan State can't afford a repeat of Thursday's opening five minutes if it wants to win a third national championship.

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.