Maine vs. Michigan State
Thursday, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
How They Got Here
Maine: East Regional third seed
Maine 4, St. Cloud State 1
Maine 3, Massachusetts 1
Michigan State: Midwest Regional third seed
Michigan State 5, Boston University 1
Michigan State 2, Notre Dame 1
This game will likely be decided by which team's group of forwards plays better. This comparison category, like most of them between these two teams, is very even. Maine boasts greater depth and a lot more tournament experience, but Michigan State's top two lines are probably stronger overall than their counterparts on the adjacent bench. Two game breakers are worth keeping an eye on: Maine's Teddy Purcell and Michigan State's Tim Kennedy. Each team also has a strong veteran presence in Michel Leveille for Maine and Bryan Lerg for Michigan State.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead lauded the effort from his defensemen in keeping the front of the net clear in the NCAA Tournament and throughout most of the season. They'll need to make that a priority Thursday, because Michigan State's forwards love to play near the blue paint. Junior Bret Tyler is probably the most offensive-minded blueliner for the Black Bears.
The Spartans' defense is led by converted forward Tyler Howells, who uses his speed to start the transition game and gives opposing teams something else to worry about. Dan Vukovic is a strong defensive stopper with good size who is committed to taking care of things in the D zone first. The Spartans' lineup has recently featured seven defensemen, so if one were to go down to injury, there's depth that can fill the void.
If size matters, we'll find out after this matchup, between Maine's Ben Bishop (6-foot-7) and Michigan State's Jeff Lerg (5-6). Both were sensational in regional play, allowing just one goal per game, which meant something to each team for different reasons. For Maine, it showed that Bishop was healthy after missing six of Maine's previous 10 games due to injury. For Michigan State, it meant that Lerg regained the form he showed during his impressive sophomore campaign and Spartans fans hope he can maintain consistency for just one more weekend.
Give Maine the advantage in this category, but not by much. The Black Bears enter the Frozen Four with the nation's best power-play percentage (25.7) and rank 16th nationally in penalty killing. They also scored four power-play goals in the East Regional two weeks ago in Rochester, N.Y. But Michigan State's penalty killing is almost as impressive. The Spartans were a perfect 11-for-11 in killing off penalties at the regional, and ranked eighth nationally in penalty killing over the course of the year. The Spartans' power play isn't bad either, with three PPGs at the regional and a conversion rate that ranked them 16th nationally.
The men behind the benches and their trusted assistants have the chance to make a big impact on this game. One tactical move developed from advance scouting can make the difference in a game between two evenly matched teams. Rick Comley stands behind the Michigan State bench, one of the winningest coaches of all time and the head coach for Northern Michigan's national championship team in 1991. Whitehead has now led the Black Bears to the Frozen Four in four of his six seasons as head coach. That's an astounding percentage, but the Black Bears haven't won the national title since 1999.
Why Maine wins: The Black Bears' senior class is making its third trip to the Frozen Four and would like nothing more than to win the trophy that has proven to be elusive so far in their collegiate careers. Now is the time to put that experience to good use, and the veteran presence and reliable goaltending of Ben Bishop could put Maine over the top.
Why Michigan State wins: The Spartans' top line is comprised of three sophomores, and when they're on their game, they are a tough matchup for even the best defensive teams and goaltenders. They provided both goals in the regional final win over stingy Notre Dame and can do it again this week against Maine.
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