SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The Michigan State hockey program took a big step forward Sunday night.
The Spartans won their first-ever Big Ten tournament series, scoring three unanswered goals and moving on to a 4-2 victory over Notre Dame in Game 3 of their best-of-3 series.
“It was great and the guys did a heck of a job. It’s only the second time in Big Ten history that the road team has won, so to go down one and come back and hang on, that was huge for our program,” MSU said -coach Adam Nightingale. “Notre Dame is such a quality program and I thought it was their best game of the series. We had a little bend-don’t-break, but that’s what this time of year is all about, you have to find a way to win.”
MSU now travels to face No. 1 seed Minnesota next Saturday in a one-game semifinal for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament final.
Notre Dame’s Justin Janicke opened the scoring for Notre Dame on the power play just over five minutes into the game. But MSU senior forward Nico Muller answered later in the first period by pouncing on a loose puck off a blocked shot and sending it over the glove of Notre Dame goaltender Ryan Bischel.
It was Muller who initiated the Spartans’ lead in the second period, winning an offensive zone draw and immediately sending the puck across the court where junior forward Jeremy Davidson charged and put the puck past a sprawling Bischel for a 2-1 lead.
“We were on the same page and I told him in the TV timeout that I was going to do it,” Muller said. “We didn’t plan it before the game, but I just felt it and it worked out.”
MSU extended its lead to two after a point shot by defenseman Nash Nienhuis hit MSU’s Miroslav Mucha on his way to the net. The deflection took Bischel out of position and freshman forward Tiernan Shoudy was able to quickly find the rebound and put it away.
Notre Dame’s Hunter Strand scored on the power play with 3:23 left to make it 3-2 and got the Notre Dame crowd as loud as it had been all series. But with the goalie pulled, Muller gained possession in the defensive zone and lobbed the puck the length of the ice, where it trickled into the empty net to give MSU a 4-2 lead.
“It was a great performance from the team and we worked for each other,” Muller said. “It was a really fun game and I think it means a lot to us. We’ve been working so hard and after getting the empty netter it felt really good.”
MSU goalkeeper Dylan St. Cyr made a number of big saves down the stretch, most notably a save on Notre Dame forward Grant Silianoff that would have cut the Irish deficit to just one with plenty of time left to find an equalizer.
St. Cyr, who played his first four collegiate seasons at Notre Dame, finished with 37 saves and earned back-to-back wins over his old team.
“I never would have thought my best games (at Notre Dame) would be wearing the green and white, and it felt great to get this win with Michigan State,” said St. Cyr. “We knew we played really well the first game and some bounces didn’t go our way, but we’re a process-driven team and we stuck with it and it showed in the last two games.”
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Muller, who had just six points all last season, finished with two goals and an assist to give him a team-leading 34 points on the season. Davidson has now scored in back-to-back games and Shoudy, who had been disruptive all series, was rewarded with his sixth goal of the season.
MSU’s players have preached all season that Nightingale’s practices are harder than the actual games, and the conditioning and intensity of those practices certainly helped the Spartans down the stretch in a three-game, three-day series.
“One hundred percent it made an impact, and I think that’s something you can control, and your body is capable of more than you sometimes give it credit for,” Nightingale said. “Our university supports us in a great way and we’re able to feed our guys well and get the treatment they need to stay healthy. It’s really exciting for the guys to see success when you train like that, it matters.”
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MSU went 0-4 against Minnesota this season, but has a chance to rectify that next Saturday at 21 and further strengthen its NCAA Tournament chances. The Spartans will likely still need some teams to stumble in their respective conference tournaments, but MSU jumped to No. 16 in the Pairwise rankings. It appears that the top 15 teams will make the NCAA Tournament field, assuming all of the conference winners are teams inside the 15. The Atlantic Hockey Conference does not have a team in the top 16, but will receive an automatic bid, taking a of the 16 places in the field.
Contact Nathaniel Bott at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Nathaniel_Bott