With 15 minutesleft in the NCAA championship game and 6'7" Boston College captain BrianBoyle bearing down on him with the puck, Michigan State's 5'6" sophomoregoaltender Jeff Lerg was thinking big. Stay tall, he told himself. It was ahuge moment for both players: A goal by the overpowering All-America forwardwould give his team, winner of 13 straight and the heavy favorite entering theFrozen Four, a 2--0 lead; a save by the elfin netminder would give his team, aNo. 3 regional seed that had exceeded expectations by merely getting into the16-team tournament, a rallying point. Boyle hesitated, then shot over thefalling goaltender, but Lerg reached above his head to glove the puck beforehitting the ice. "Given the circumstance," says Spartans coach RickComley, "it was one of the best saves I've ever seen."
Lerg's quickreflexes indeed sparked Michigan State to a riveting 3--1 upset. The Spartanstied the score 1--1 on a power play five minutes later, when sophomore forwardTim Kennedy beat Eagles goalie Cory Schneider on a breakaway. Michigan Statethen outshot BC 9--3 over the last 10 minutes and finally got the decisive goalwith 18.9 seconds left. Forward Justin Abdelkader fired a right-circle wristshot off the goal post, then skated to the slot while Kennedy retrieved thepuck behind the net; Kennedy split two Eagles defensemen with a touch pass toAbdelkader, who converted the shot.
The Spartans' firstNCAA hockey title since 1986 was a stunning defeat for the Eagles, one ofcollege 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 andneutral-zone clutter. "We're not a pretty team," says Comley. "Wecrash the net, play the walls and force teams to the outside."
The loss of lastseason's snipers, Drew Miller (who plays for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' AHL teamin Portland) and David Booth (now on the Florida Panthers), left Comley withlittle firepower and no choice but to coax his players into playing adisciplined trapping system. "I wondered if we might have to patch a teamtogether," 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 theFrozen Four semifinal against Maine, the team with the nation's best powerplay, Michigan State committed only two penalties and scored twice by battingpucks out of midair. "For a second," says Maine goalie Ben Bishop,"I thought I was playing their baseball team." The Spartans finishedthe tournament on a 19-5-2 roll.
More than any otherplayer, Lerg embodied his team's discipline and resilience. Diagnosed at agefour with severe asthma, he's had seven attacks over the last two years, butmost 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 thehotel with the Spartans' doctor to get an injection. The next day he startedthe game and beat New Hampshire 1--0 for the first NCAA tournament shutout inschool history. Lerg, who allowed five goals in four tournament games, delightsin disproving naysayers. "It's personal," he says. "I want tooutplay the other goaltender and make one highlight save a game."
The hard-foughtloss was a bitter pill for BC coach Jerry York, whose team dropped a tight 2--1game to Wisconsin in last year's final, but he was classy to the end. Afterjunior Chris Mueller's empty-net goal gave Michigan State a 3--1 lead with 1.7seconds to play and the Spartans began throwing their sticks and gloves in theair, York asked officials to let the clock expire so as not to interrupt thecelebration. It was a night when little things made a big difference.