Title contenders rely on small players with big impact

Two of the biggest impact players competing for the national championship on Saturday are two of the smallest in terms of stature, writes David Albright.

Updated: April 6, 2007, 6:45 PM ET
By David Albright | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Talk about embracing your perceived shortcomings.

Jeff Lerg
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMichigan State's "Lil Guy" has provided the spark the Spartans have needed.

On the back of Jeff Lerg's mask, it says "Lil Guy."

At 5-foot-6 and 155 pounds, it's an accurate physical description of the Michigan State goalie. But in terms of a hockey description, it comes up way short.

"In the NHL, they say about 70 percent of the goals are from halfway up the net and below," Lerg said. "So what's the point of being tall if you have to be down there anyway?

"As long as I stop the puck. I may have to stay out a little further than other goalies would have to, but I try to use my quickness."

And competitiveness. And determination. And work ethic.

"He's a feisty little guy who loves challenges," Spartans coach Rick Comley said. "He's the best kid we have in that locker room and this team is built around him."

That becomes clear when you look at the numbers.

Lerg comes into Saturday night's national championship game against Boston College (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) with a 2.33 goals-against average and .912 save percentage this season.

Dig a little deeper and you find that his postseason numbers are downright gaudy. In five NCAA Tournament games (two last season and three this year) he owns the fifth-best all-time save percentage (.946) and is tied for fourth in goals-against average (1.60).

But that only tells part of the story.

"He's a severe asthmatic," Comley said. "He has to go on a breathing machine every day before he goes on the ice. I've never seen an athlete prepare like he does. I've coached a lot of good kids over the years, but I have more respect for him than anybody I've ever coached."

Lerg's daily regimen includes two pills and two inhalers when he gets up in the morning. Then at the rink, it's a 10- to 12-minute cycle on the breathing machine. And before he goes to bed, he takes a few more pills and uses additional inhalers.

If Saturday night's game goes well beyond 60 minutes, he may need to use those inhalers between overtimes.

When the Eagles look at Lerg, they don't see his size either. They see his will and mental toughness.

"When we watch him on tape, he just battles," BC coach Jerry York said. "To give up a goal like that 23 seconds into the [semifinal] game and not lose your composure, that tells me we have a competitor that we're going to play against."

Nathan Gerbe
Elsa/Getty ImagesNathan Gerbe uses his quickness and intensity to best bigger players.

York and the BC fans are very familiar with big deliveries from small packages.

Think Doug Flutie. Or Brian Gionta.

Gionta, all of 5-7 and 175 pounds, was the Eagles' leading scorer in 2001 -- the last year BC won a national championship. Now the right wing is the second-leading goal scorer for the New Jersey Devils.

"I think Jerry was the first coach to really throw out the size," Comley said. "He's kind of made a living with 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8 forwards who play like they're 6-foot-1. And then he mixes in the right size with it, so I think he threw the stereotype out and has had great success with it."

Try 5-5.

The smallest player in the title game will be BC's Nathan Gerbe.

But what the sophomore left wing lacks in size, he more than makes up for in speed.

"You can do a lot with speed, especially in the game now with the new rules," Gerbe said. "It helps me a lot and it gives me a lot of hope."

And it gives other teams a lot of heartbreak.

"He's a lot like my cousin Jeff in net in that he competes every single day -- the hardest worker on the ice," MSU's Bryan Lerg said. "You don't want to give him room because he's dangerous.

"Being 5-foot-5, I don't think that bothers him one bit. I think he uses it to his advantage. He sneaks around, but he's also a physical kid. You'll see him knock people over. He's not scared to light someone up out there."

Despite his size, Gerbe isn't afraid to get dirty in the corners or the crease, much to the delight of the message-board denizens who have nicknamed him "Demolition Gerbe."

Gerbe is third on BC in penalty minutes with 74, trailing only Brian Boyle (102) and Mike Brennan (89).

"He doesn't back down from anyone," line mate Brock Bradford said. "He's a feisty guy that goes hard for every battle, every loose puck, and he's pretty tough to play against. I don't think many defenders want to play against him. He's a threat every time he's on the ice."

Like with Lerg, the numbers don't lie.

Gerbe leads BC in goals of all varieties: overall (25), power-play (9), game-winning (6) and shorthanded (4).

In Thursday's semifinal win over North Dakota, Gerbe finished with two goals and two assists.

On Saturday night, Gerbe (Oxford, Mich.) will try and beat Lerg (Livonia, Mich.), his former teammate in the Honeybaked hockey program based in suburban Detroit. The two played together before moving on to the U.S. National Team Development Program and the USHL (Omaha Lancers) respectively.

"He's the same as me," Lerg said. "He uses speed and quickness all over the ice. People look at us and they don't think we're too much of anything. Once he gets out there I'm sure he can turn any defenseman inside out.

"I won't lose sight of him."

One of the great things about hockey is that two of the biggest impact players can be two of the smallest in terms of stature.

"You just have to come to every game with a competitive attitude that you're not going to get beat down and you have to prove everyone wrong," Gerbe said.

And for one of the "lil guys" on the ice Saturday night, the proof will come in the form of a national championship.

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

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