Sometimes, a single play or goal makes all the difference.
At 7:26 of the second period, Notre Dame junior forward Grant Silianoff shoved Michigan State sophomore forward Tanner Kelly face-first into the boards on the Irish’s side of the ice, resulting in MSU’s first power-play opportunity of the night.
Trailing 1-0 after twenty minutes, the Spartans were searching for an equalizer to prevent getting shut out two nights in-a-row, while also fighting to keep their season alive.
With 50 seconds left on the man-advantage, sophomore defenseman David Gucciardi passed the puck to his right where senior forward Nico Müller was waiting just outside the circle. Müller launched it diagonally across Notre Dame’s defensive zone to junior forward Jeremy Davidson who slid it into the lower left corner of the net past senior goaltender Ryan Bischel.
The scoreboard read 1-1 with 11:22 remaining in the second period.
Everything clicked into place with Davidson’s tally, giving the Spartans their first goal of the series and what seemed to be a much-needed confidence boost.
Michigan State was buzzing the rest of the night, racking up three additional goals.
Both skaters finished the night with multiple assists, Shoudy with five and Russell with two. Müller joined the pair with two of his own.
Junior defenseman Nash Nienhuis notched the third goal. A perfect setup by Müller and Davidson provided him the opportunity to hurl the puck top-shelf from inside the right circle.
“Last night was really frustrating because we felt we had a ton of chances,” Nienhuis said Saturday. “Once we got that first one, it just felt like a bit of a relief, and we knew we could beat this guy. Then, they just all started coming.”
For good measure, freshman forward Karsen Dorwart netted his tenth goal of the season with 14:26 to play. A little help from Russell allowed Dorwart to fire the puck from an incredibly tight angle on Bischel’s left side, almost parallel with the goal line.
The first line, consisting of Dorwart, Russell and senior forward Jagger Joshua, combined for eight shots on net after putting up six during the first game of the series.
“I think we're a little better on the forecheck,” Russell said of his line on Saturday. “We were getting them to turn pucks over in our offensive zone, so that was huge for us to maintain puck possession.”
Friday night sang a completely different tune. The Spartans failed to find the back of the net for the full 60 minutes despite outshooting the Irish 36-21. They were unable to trip Bischel up, and he stayed perfect.
After dropping the first game in the series to Notre Dame 1-0, Michigan State had its back against the wall. Another Fighting Irish win would have ended the Spartans’ season, sending them back to East Lansing.
MSU head hockey coach Adam Nightingale is the first to say the program’s 14-straight losses in the Big Ten Tournament, dating back to 2014, are all “in the past.”
But in his first year behind the bench, the Spartans earned a conference playoff victory for the first time since the Big Ten was formed in 2013-14, defeating Notre Dame 4-2 on Saturday.
“We're trying to look forward, you know, so it's obviously good to get the win for the program, and now we got an opportunity to win a series,” Nightingale said. “We know we're playing a really good team in a great environment, so it'll be a huge test for us.”
Saturday marked MSU’s 17th victory of the season, the most wins since the program earned that many in 2014-15. The Spartans also improved to 17-17-2 overall and 10-12-2 in Big Ten play.
One of Michigan State’s strengths this season has been its ability to bounce back after a tough loss or disappointing series. The Spartans proved their worth once again in game two, pulling off a victory and forcing a third game. Now, it’s up to them to decide their fate on whether or not they advance to the semifinals next weekend.
“They’re a really good team and defend really well and they got a really good goalie, so it doesn’t come easy,” Nightingale said. “You just got to stay with it and when you try to cheat or hope for offense, that's when it can go sideways for you. So, I thought our guys did a good job of staying with it and playing the right way.”