For the first few minutes Thursday, it appeared history might repeat itself. That was good news for the Maine Black Bears and bad for the Michigan State Spartans.

After jumping out to an early lead to beat Michigan State in last year’s East Regional in Albany, Maine had an even faster start in Thursday’s National Semifinal rematch with the Spartans. This time, however, Maine couldn’t finish what it started. The Spartans rallied from the early deficit and scored four unanswered goals in a 4-2 victory at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Michigan State (25-13-3) advances to Saturday’s National Championship and ends Maine’s hopes for a sixth trip to the National title game.

Maine (23-15-2) raced out to a 3-0 lead in Albany last year. Though Michigan State made a comeback and got within 4-3, the Black Bears finished off the Spartans, thwarting the rally in the final period.

This time, Michigan State wasn’t to be denied.

“You could have caught most of the guys laughing,” said forward Justin Abdelkader, who assisted on the tying goal in the second period. “Everyone turned to each other like, ‘Is this really happening?’ The big thing is all the experience from last year, and all the guys realized we could come back.”

After a dreadful start, the Spartans rallied with two strong periods. Michigan State, ranked fifth in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, tied the game late in the second on a Chris Snavely goal. The Spartans then broke the tie in the third on goals by Nick Sucharski and Jim McKenzie. Both goals came off Maine turnovers in the defensive end.

“It was the start that you want,” said Maine senior forward Josh Soares, who set up the first goal and scored the second. “I thought maybe we got too emotional. Maybe it was too good of a start, and we tightened up a bit.”

Though Michigan State’s sophomore goaltender Jeff Lerg gave up as many goals in the first three-plus minutes as he did as the Midwest Regional MVP, the 5-foot-6 goaltender stood tall the rest of the way. He regrouped and backstopped the Spartan comeback, making critical saves in the third period on Maine’s Keith Johnson and David de Kastrozza. After scoring on two of its first four shots, the Black Bear offense wasn’t as productive the rest of the way.

“He’s the strongest-minded kid in our locker room,” said Spartan forward Chris Mueller. “He’s the strongest-minded kid I’ve ever played with. I think he gets better when a goal gets scored on him because he thinks he has to make it up to our team.”

Maine, ranked sixth in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, duplicated last year’s furious start and had the Spartans reeling with two goals in the first 3:24.

Just 23 seconds into action, Johnson popped in his 10th of the year. Maine had moved the puck down low and won control behind the net. Josh Soares put it out front for Johnson to chip in.

Then at 3:24, Maine’s top line struck again. Soares and Johnson teamed up a second time. Soares got the puck at the end line and fed it up the wing to Johnson at the point. He returned the puck to Soares in the high slot for a quick wrister.

“We just wanted to come out hard,” said Maine captain Michel Leveille. “We didn’t want to focus on them. We wanted to play our style. That was our game plan. We wanted to be physical and pressure their D. That’s what we did in the first period.”

Michigan State got one goal back at 7:25. Mueller brought the puck out from behind the net and backhanded a shot. It deflected up in the air, and Mueller took a swipe at it to make it 2-1.

Maine had a power-play chance and put great pressure on the Spartans, hemming in Michigan State’s penalty kill, but the nation’s top power-play unit couldn’t produce. Michigan State later had its own man advantage late in the period. Windham’s Matt Duffy helped preserve the lead, clearing a rebound in front of an open net after a Ben Bishop save. Maine gave the Spartans another power play late in the first period and one in the second enabling Michigan State to get back on track.

“Obviously, they’re not going to give up,” said Leveille. “We want to focus on ourselves and play well defensively and hopefully, minimize their chances offensively. We wanted to stick to our game plan and play hard and play well as a team.”

The Spartans continued to slow the pace down and keep Maine off balance for much of the second. The Black Bears got quality shots on a rebound bid by Johnson that went wide. Then in the final minute Billy Ryan had a wrister that came as Maine caught Michigan State on a lengthy shift.

“For a second, I flashed back to last year,” Lerg said. “After that, I settled down. I thought, ‘They can win the first 5 minutes of the game as long as we win the last 55 minutes.”

Maine’s highlights in the second were few and far between, however, as the Black Bears were plagued by bad penalties and turnovers. The Spartans turned one of those give-aways into the tying goal with 3:28 left when Snavely netted his second of the year.

After a turnover in the neutral zone, Michigan State raced back on an odd man rush. Abdelkader dropped a pass back for Snavely for a wrister.

“Coach said we had to get the puck low on their defense,” said Mueller. “That’s where they struggle. That’s where we play our games. So we had to get the puck low and clog them up in the neutral zone. We couldn’t let them get speed and keep banging bodies.”

The Black Bears had a prime opportunity to take the lead with its second power play of the game at 2:34. Maine got a nice shot from Leveille and a rebound bid by Johnson that Lerg managed to block amidst a scramble in front.

“Jeff, I thought he settled down,” said Michigan State coach Rick Comley. “I thought he was nervous early. He came up with some big saves.”

Less than two minutes later, the Spartans broke the tie when Sucharski poked in a loose puck. Maine had been unable to clear or cover up the puck thrown in front, despite having three Black Bears and Bishop in the goalmouth.

Then with 10:14 left, a turnover at Maine’s blue line was intercepted by McKenzie. He set up a shot by Mueller and tipped in the rebound.

Michigan State scored three of its goals on rebounds given up by Bishop, a third-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2005 playing in his hometown. Bishop allowed only one goal in two games to help his team make it to the Frozen Four for the fourth time in six years.

“Bish played a great game,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “He made some big saves. It wasn’t his fault we lost this game.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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