DETROIT Like the Union army at the Battle of Gettysburg, they line up, four across. They cut an imposing figure, daring any and all comers to attempt an attack. Behind them stands their leader, prepared to thwart the brave opponent who sees the slightest opening.
Is this some type of commando unit? No, it”s the Michigan State defense.
The top-ranked Spartans” virtually impenetrable defense was the chief reason for their astonishing 23-game unbeaten streak which was broken by Michigan in a 4-3, overtime thriller on Saturday night. The defeat was Michigan State”s first loss since Oct. 20 against Nebraska-Omaha.
But one loss doesn”t erase what the Spartans have achieved so far this season. Michigan State hasn”t beaten teams as much as it has suffocated them, and the proof is in the stats the Spartans entered Saturday night”s contest with a national-best 1.12 goals-against average.
The credit for these eye-popping numbers must be divided between two entities Michigan State”s defensive system and sophomore goaltender Ryan Miller.
The Spartans” defensive style is reminiscent of the Stanley Cup-winning New Jersey Devils from 1995. Michigan State clogs up the neutral zone and its own defensive zone so that it is nearly impossible for opposing teams to generate offensive flow.
This leads to frustration on the other team”s part, creating turnovers and counterattacking possibilities for the Spartans.
“You”ve got to be patient, and you can”t try to do too much,” Michigan defenseman Jeff Jillson said. “Their system is designed to make you pay in transition. You just have to do a good job in the neutral zone, be patient, and take the play that is there.”
The Spartans had pitched five shutouts in six games heading into Saturday night”s contest, which makes Michigan”s success that much more remarkable. To put the Wolverines” four goals into context, consider this Michigan State had only given up four goals in its previous nine games.
So, what was the secret to Michigan”s success?
“We saw them lining four up, so what we had to do was get it behind them,” forward Craig Murray said. “Unless we could get outside speed and go wide, we planned on dumping it in and going to get it.”
But the Wolverines still had to put the puck in the net, something that has been a lot easier said than done against Miller. Michigan State”s phenom had recorded five shutouts in his previous six starts tying an NCAA record for career shutouts (16) in the process and entered Saturday”s affair with a staggering 207:12 shutout streak.
Miller extended that streak by holding Michigan scoreless in the first period. The Wolverines finally broke the ice against Miller who had stonewalled then-No. 1 Michigan, 1-0, at Yost Arena on Nov. 4 when Josh Langfeld outmuscled Michigan State defenseman Brad Fast and redirected a Mark Mink pass past Miller at 2:07 of the second period.
For Michigan, getting the puck past Miller was as much a psychological battle as a physical one. As well as Miller has been playing, the Wolverines” success was a product of both strategy and execution.
“We just had to get a lot of shots and get traffic in front of him,” forward J.J. Swistak said. “He”s probably the best goalie in college hockey right now, so we just had to keep throwing the puck at the net and try to create some havoc in front of him.
“We had a talk in the room before the game and said that he”s just another goalie,” Murray added. “We gave him all the respect he earned, but if we get traffic in front of him, any goalie that can”t see the puck isn”t going to stop it.”