Detroit — It wasn’t about how they started.
And despite the fact that the Lake Superior State Lakers defeated the Michigan State Spartans, 4-3, in overtime, it wasn’t even necessarily about how they finished.
No, on Sunday at Little Caesars Arena, it was mostly about that 20-minute stretch in between, when the Lakers bounced back from an early deficit with three unanswered goals before senior captain Diego Cuglietta’s winner put LSSU into the Great Lakes Invitational championship.
LSSU (10-6-1, 6-5-1-0 WCHA) responded to a 2-0 MSU lead 10:13 into the game by popping in two of its own to close the opening period and then lit the lamp again halfway through the second to gain an edge the Spartans couldn't overcome.
Cuglietta caught a slick pass from Jacob Nordqvist and buried the winner at 3:05 in the overtime period to cap a two-goal night that he said was such an exciting moment, he “kind of blacked out.”
“It was a great play by Nords, he just came across the goal line and slid it in and I just luckily got a stick on it and got it in,” Cuglietta said.
Anthony Nellis scored his 11th of the season less than a minute after the Lakers went down by two. Cuglietta had his first of the night on a power-play tally at 15:42 to tie it up.
Fellow senior captain Gage Torrel said that the Lakers displayed a “resiliency” that the team hasn’t “had in the past.”
“We have a core structure that’s been through thick and thin in tough games and good games,” Torrel said.
“All year we’ve battled … I think it’s a mentality we have.”
MSU (6-9-2, 2-5-1-1 Big Ten) jumped on the Lakers by way of Dennis Cesana, who beat LSSU goaltender Nick Kossoff on a bad-angle shot from the corner, and Wojchiech Stachowiak’s rebound tally at 10:13 in the first.
While the score sheet didn’t reflect it, fifth-year LSSU head coach Damon Whitten said he didn’t think his team was “off” or played “poor.”
“We gave them too much easy offense, whether it was puck management or an easy goal early on,” Whitten said.
"You look up, you’re down 2-0. So you might say, oh boy, but our team responded.”
MSU’s ‘KHL’ line of Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitch Lewandowski, who had accounted for 52 percent of the Spartans’ points entering Sunday, were held to five shots and one assist, Hirose’s helper on MSU’s first goal.
In the meantime, Stachowiak scored twice — the first two goals of his career — to keep the Spartans afloat. He fired home his second of the night on an odd-man rush at 7:55 in the third to tie the score, 3-3. Both of his goals were assisted by Cesana.
Hirose said nobody on the Spartans bench was “very surprised” by Stachowiak’s breakout game.
“He has a lot of skills and a lot of other stuff on the offensive side that he can use in his game,” Hirose said. “I think it was just a matter of time until he had a game like that.”
Junior winger Max Humitz gave Lake Superior State a 3-2 lead 7:29 into the second period with a wraparound goal that beat MSU goaltender John Lethemon.
MSU came alive toward the end of the second and outshot the Lakers 14-8 in the third.
LSSU’s Collin Saccoman, who had two assists, was called for tripping with 1:35 left in the third, putting MSU on the power play for the rest of regulation and part of overtime. Despite an array of chances, the Spartans couldn’t find the back of the net.
The Lakers will meet Michigan Tech, who defeated Michigan in a shootout during the early semifinal matchup, in Monday’s all-Upper Peninsula championship game.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.