1996-97 MSU Hockey Review
EAST LANSING, Mich.--Michigan State posted its 15th 20-win season in the last 16 years and achieved its goal of finishing in the top four in the CCHA in 1996-97, but fell short of its pursuit of another banner for Munn Arena's rafters. MSU advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year and 14th time in 16 years and finished third in the league, as it was part of a group of teams chasing No. 1 Michigan, which ran away with the regular-season title.
But Michigan State was not just another follower in 1996-97, and a pair of games against those Wolverines proved it. The Spartans had the potential to put together near-perfect outings, such as a night in Munn Arena in November and another at Joe Louis Arena in February which saw MSU hand the defending national champions their first two losses of the season. Both were dramatic victories not secured until the third period and played in front of enthusiastic sellout crowds.
In the early-season matchup with the Wolverines in East Lansing, Michigan's Brendan Morrison scored eight minutes into the third period to give the visitors a 4-3 edge. Michigan State surged back, however, tying the game just over a minute later on a goal by Shawn Horcoff. The tension in the tie game built for 10 minutes before Bryan Adams' goal with 52 seconds remaining gave MSU the win and sparked jubilation in Munn Arena, which welcomed its largest crowd in 10 years.
Joe Louis Arena featured a similarly packed house for the February meeting between the two rivals, and the tension there was provided by a scoreless game. Still 0-0 entering the third, MSU scored twice in 50 seconds (goals by Mike York and Tony Tuzzolino) to hand the Wolverines their second loss of the season. Michigan got within one late in the third, but Chad Alban remained strong in goal and held on for the 2-1 win, as MSU was the first team all year to hold Michigan to less than three goals.
While MSU found success against some of the nation's best teams -- and it was 6-5 on the year against NCAA tournament teams -- the Spartans often struggled against teams of seemingly lesser stature. Alaska Fairbanks and Ohio State both left Munn Arena with victories, and MSU lost to a pair of second-division Hockey East teams on an October road trip to Boston.
Whenever Michigan State stumbled, however, it showed a knack for righting itself, and was able to put together a strong enough record to finish third in the CCHA and reach the NCAA tournament. The Spartans featured an outstanding team defense, leading the nation in penalty killing in the regular season. MSU finished the season allowing just 2.95 goals per game, its lowest average in over a decade.
Offensively, Michigan State was balanced, as its top three scorers spent most of the season skating on different lines. This equation of a tough defense and a balanced attack helped Michigan State overcome any stumbling blocks it encountered, and it lost back-to-back games only twice all season.
After a loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor in November, the Spartans won five of their next six, only losing to Minnesota in the College Hockey Showcase at Joe Louis. MSU defeated WCHA rival Wisconsin in the opening game of the Showcase.
In Michigan State's next trip to Joe Louis, for the annual Great Lakes Invitational after Christmas, the Spartans dropped a disappointing 5-0 loss to Lake Superior, but were able to bounce back and put together a season-long seven-game unbeaten streak, starting with a third-place win over Michigan Tech in the GLI.
Included in that stretch was a memorable New Year's Eve game in Munn Arena. Following a pre-game indoor fireworks display, the Spartans rang in the new year with an impressive 6-2 win over Colorado College, a WCHA visitor which would eventually reach the NCAA Final Four.
As the regular season wound down -- and it finished with the team's first scoreless tie since 1954, against Bowling Green -- MSU found itself in the third spot entering the CCHA playoffs. The Spartans hosted Western Michigan in the first round best-of-three series. After losing two out of three to the Broncos in the regular season, Michigan State swept WMU in a series almost everyone predicted would go three games.
That set up a meeting with No. 2 Miami in the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena which proved to be a memorable night. With Miami leading, 3-0, after two periods and Michigan already securing a spot in the final, a Redskin-Wolverine championship game seemed a lock.
MSU clawed back, however, chipping away at the Miami lead with goals by Mike Watt and a pair from Chris Bogas. The Spartans, who had not played well in the first two periods, played inspired hockey in the third and sent the game into overtime. After the ice was resurfaced, Brian Crane finished a perfectly executed three-on-two rush, and Ron Mason had his 775th career win.
That was to be the last victory of the season, however, as Michigan captured the CCHA title, 3-1. The Miami had secured a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and MSU earned the fifth seed in the West Region. At Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, the Spartans struggled from the start and fell to No. 4 Minnesota, 6-3.