Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mavericks extend winning streak to six

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team was expected to be good this year. They are expected to beat the lesser teams in the country, but when you’re ranked among the top ten in the nation, nearly everyone is a lesser team.

A sweep over Michigan Tech two weekends ago, who were ranked no. 1 at the time, showed just how good this Maverick team is, and extended their winning streak to four games. This past weekend, the Mavs kept things rolling and extended that streak to six.

Brett Knowles recorded his first career hat-trick on
The Mavericks who are now 11-3-0 (9-1-0 in the WCHA), headed to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. on Friday for a series against the Lake Superior State University Lakers. LSSU, who won a pair of national championships in the early nineties when they played in three consecutive title games, have since fallen from grace.

After a 0-9 start to the season, the Lakers picked things up a bit, going 3-2 after their first nine heading into the series against MSU. Their turnaround pretty much ended there.

On Friday night the Mavericks won in dominating fashion.
Junior Brett Knowles, who had been sidelined until two weeks ago after he had hip surgery over the summer, stole the spotlight that night. Knowles opened the scoring early in the game with the eventual game winner when he redirected a Sean Flanagan shot past the Laker goaltender.

Knowles would tally again in the second period, sandwiched between a pair of Chase Grant goals before junior Teddy Blueger would score on a rising wrist shot from afar to give the Mavericks a four-goal second period.

In the third period, Casey Nelson wristed a power play goal past LSSU goaltender Gordon Defiel to extend the lead to 6-0 before Knowles would split the Laker defense on his way to a highlight reel breakaway goal for his third goal of the night and a 7-0 win. Both goals were scored on the power play.

It was the third hat-trick of the season for MSU, with Blueger and junior Bryce Gervais both recording three-goal games earlier this season. It was the first for Knowles, who scored his only goal of last season in the WCHA Final Five title game, and this hat-trick included his first three tallies of the 2014-2015 season.

Stephon Williams recorded 24 saves in the win, posting his first shutout of the season.

Saturday night didn’t see quite the scoring barrage that Friday’s game did, but it was still a game in which the Mavs controlled much of the play.

Junior forward Dylan Margonari put the Mavs on the board towards the end of the first period on his fourth goal of the season when he batted a puck out of the air and into the Laker net. The goal was initially called off, but after video review the goal stood.

The game was relatively quiet after that until the third period when MSU scored a pair of goals just over a minute apart to give them a cushion.

Zach Stepan netted his first of the year when he collected a loose puck in the slot and roofed it over the shoulder of Defiel. Shortly after, Matt Leitner came rushing down the left side and found an opening past Defiel for his fourth of the season to extend the lead to 3-0.

After losing the job last season, Williams has again
emerged as the starting goaltender for MSU.
Williams would again earn a shutout victory after he made 21 saves, giving him an 11-1 record on the season. Impressively, his stats have gotten even better. After posting two shutouts on the weekend, Williams now holds a 1.52 goals against average, and a .931 save percentage. His .917 winning percentage is the highest among WCHA goaltenders.

Williams playing his best hockey since his WCHA Goaltender of the Year season two years ago is a good sign for the Mavericks. While the Mavericks have the second best offense in the country, averaging 3.79 goals per game, having a goaltender who on average allows less than two goals per game puts a team in good position to win.

Still in second place in the WCHA behind Michigan Tech University, the Mavs have played two games less than MTU and should be in good position to move ahead of them for first place in the conference as the Huskies have this weekend off from games.

The Mavericks take the ice again this weekend when they return home to play at the Verizon Wireless Center in downtown Mankato. The Mavs play another WCHA series as the University of Alaska-Fairbanks comes to town.

After a 6-0 start, the Nanooks from Fairbanks have slipped to a 7-7 record, and 2-6 in the WCHA. These two teams take to the ice at 7:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in Mankato as the Mavericks look to extend their winning streak to eight with a sweep over the Nanooks.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mavericks take down no. 1

A week ago, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team was preparing to take on the top ranked team in all of Division I men’s hockey. Michigan Tech University was billed as the top team last Monday after starting the season 10-0-0, the best start in the program’s 94 year history.

With an 8-0-0 start in conference play, it appeared that this year’s Michigan Tech team could be last year’s Ferris State; leading the WCHA with all other teams chasing them. The Mavericks had other plans, though.

The Mavericks celebrate J.P. LaFontaine's Saturday night goal.
Last season, MSU was chasing Ferris State in the WCHA standings for much of the season, until a late season sweep over FSU put the Mavericks in position to win a share of the regular season league title, which they fell one point short of. This past weekend, the Mavs showed that they aren’t waiting for a late season push to put themselves at the top of the league, they want to make that push now.

On Friday night, the no. 9 ranked Mavericks went into the MacInnes Student Ice Center in Houghton, Mich. and handed the Huskies their first loss of 2014-2015 with a 2-1 victory in a tight defensive game.

After a scoreless first period, Alex Petan got the Huskies on the board first when he buried a rebound past Maverick goaltender Stephon Williams. Williams made the initial save on the rush, but the rebound gave Petan a mostly open net to deposit his shot into. From there, over half of the game went without a goal until just past the midpoint of the third period.

At 11:58 of the third period, Brett Stern scored his second goal of the season to knot the game at one apiece on a skilled pass by junior Teddy Blueger. Down low, Blueger saw Stern crashing towards the net and fed him a pass that Stern fired past Jamie Phillips to break the seal for the Mavs.

Then just 24 seconds later, junior forward Dylan Margonari gave MSU the lead on a bouncing puck that he swatted in past Phillips. The play would be reviewed, but the goal would stand as the game winner.

Williams would collect 30 saves in the win, in some of the best hockey he has played since his freshman season where he was awarded WCHA Goaltender of the Year.

“I knew I had to come in and be better than their goalie,” Williams said. “He’s been tremendous coming into this weekend. But I also knew coming in that our (defensive) corps and our forwards with their pressure were going to be a tremendous help. They keep shots to the outside and clear dangerous pucks.”

Stern, a senior captain for the Mavericks, admitted that it’s nice to beat the top ranked team, but it doesn’t guarantee success. "It's just another game,” said Stern. “Every weekend is going to be tough."

Saturday night, the Mavericks were going for the sweep, while Tech was trying to salvage a series split. Generally, a split isn’t the goal for a weekend series, but in the case of two teams ranked among the top ten in the country, a split wouldn’t have hurt either the Huskies or the Mavericks too much. A sweep, however, could make a significant difference.

Once again it was the Huskies who got on the board first at home when Petan tallied his second goal of the weekend on a one-timer in front of Williams to give MTU the 1-0 lead early in the second period.

Just under two minutes later, the Mavs would tie things up. Jordan Nelson scored his second of the season in a scrum near the goal. With the puck loose, Nelson kicked the puck to his stick and stuffed the puck in. After review, the goal stood and the game was tied at one apiece.

Heading into the third period with the game tied, senior Matt Leitner gave MSU the lead on an odd power play goal. Leitner attempted to throw a shot on goal, but the shot was deflected by a Huskies defenseman and the change-up fooled Phillips for a 2-1 Maverick lead.

Then senior Jean-Paul LaFontaine extended the lead when he collected a loose puck behind the net and wrapped it around to the far side and tucked it into the Huskies’ net for a 3-1 lead halfway through the third period.

Tech would score a late power play goal to close the gap at 3-2, but Williams stood tall in goal and gave MSU the sweep over the top ranked team in the country.

This was a huge weekend for the Mavericks as the first time in the program’s Division I history where they swept the no. 1 ranked team in the nation. There are a few things that can be taken away from this weekend.

It appears as if junior goaltender Stephon Williams
has gained his confidence again, taking over the
starting goaltending position for MSU.
While last season Stephon Williams struggled early on and ultimately lost the starting job to now sophomore Cole Huggins, he seems to have found his footing once again. Williams holds a 9-1-0 record and a gaudy 1.85 goals against average to go along with a respectable .915 save percentage. Though he hasn’t been greatly tested this year until this past weekend, that record and only allowing three goals in two games against the nation’s top team is a good sign for the Mavericks.

Another thing to take away from this weekend is the upperclassmen leadership. Leitner and LaFontaine lit up the scoreboard in the WCHA last season, but have been relatively quiet in the goal column so far this season. Some may have thought they were in a slump, but both were still doling out assists on a regular basis. Saturday night, the pair each scored a goal in securing a sweep over Tech, and assisted on each other’s goals.

“Not many teams do well in a season without upper-class leadership,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “That’s what we needed, and we got that this weekend.”

The last thing to take away from this weekend sweep is what it means for the Maverick team as a whole. While the college hockey regular season is roughly only one-third complete, MSU is in good position if they can keep winning. After the sweep, the Mavericks now sit in first place in the NCAA pairwise rankings. These rankings are based on the team’s record and strength of schedule, and they are the rankings used to seed teams for the NCAA tournament.

While it’s far too early to get overly excited about this, it should be recognized that it puts the Mavs in good position for the rest of the season. In the WCHA, MSU is in second place, two points behind Tech, but with two games in hand. Also, the sweep over Tech puts MSU in position to remain among the top 16 in the pairwise rankings for the season if they continue to play well.

This weekend, the Mavericks will again head to Michigan, this time to face off against Lake Superior State University. Though the Lakers lost their first nine games of the season, they have won three of their last five. LSSU will look to continue improving their record, while the Mavs will look for a sweep to extend their winning streak to six games.

The puck drops at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Taffy Abel Arena in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with a 6:00 p.m. start on Saturday night.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Battling a new number one

After an idle weekend, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team goes up against the no. 1 team in the country this weekend. 

Michigan Tech University is the last undefeated team in Division I men's hockey at 10-0-0, and it has earned them the no. 1 ranking in the NCAA. After years of finishing towards the bottom of the WCHA, the Huskies hired Mel Pearson as their head coach four seasons ago, and have seen a steady rise to the top. 

The past few seasons, MTU has been able to find themselves as a middle of the pack team, but now find themselves as a legitimate threat on the national scale.  Good team defense and solid goaltending seem to be the ticket for the Huskies. 

Michigan Tech has one of the top goaltenders in the country right now in Jamie Phillips, who holds a NCAA best 10-0-0 record to go along with an incredible .957 save percentage and a 1.2 goals against average. Phillips has also posted two shutouts on the year thus far. 

Scoring is spread out throughout their roster, showing depth may be another one of their assets. Tanner Kero leads the way for the Huskies with 12 points, while Alex Petan leads Tech in goals with five. 

Most impressive about the Huskies is their penalty kill which holds a 94.2 percent success rate. While the Mavericks have a 23 percent success rate on the power play, the stingy penalty kill of the Huskies could give them trouble. 

Meanwhile, the Mavericks held their position at no. 9 in the NCAA heading into this weekend. They have however moved up in the pairwise rankings, the rankings which determines seeding for the NCAA tournament. While it's still early on in the season, moving up to the no. 2 spot in the pairwise is a good start for the Mavericks if they hope to end up among the top 16 to make their third straight NCAA tournament appearance. 

MSU's strength comes from their offense. Junior forward Bryce Gervais is still tied for the nation's lead in goals with 9, and Matt Leitner is averaging an assist per game with ten. The Mavs have proved they can score goals as good as anyone, but will it be enough going against one of the nation's defenses?

"Leitner is one of the best passers I've ever seen," said SB Nation College Hockey writer Chris Dilks. "He makes so many great plays look effortless."

The hope for MSU is that Leitner and Gervais can keep that magic going and pull off one or two big upsets this weekend. While a split weekend isn't always the ideal outcome, playing against the nation's top team changes that. A sweep or even a split would keep the Mavericks in place in the pairwise rankings and likely move them around the top five in the NCAA rankings. 

Puck drop is at 6:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night at the MacInnes Student Ice Center in Houghton, Mich. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gervais emerges as a star

Looking at his playing history, Bryce Gervais has always been a goal scorer. After graduating high school, the Battleford, Sask. native went on to play in the tier II junior A British Columbia Hockey League for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. 

In his first season with Salmon Arm, Gervais posted 29 goals and 51 points in 58 games, then improved the next season to a BCHL leading 42 goals to go along with 33 assists in a season split between Salmon Arm and the Penticton Vees. After winning the RBC Cup as the Canadian National Champions with the Vees, Gervais headed south to Mankato, Minn. to play his college hockey in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

As a rookie for Minnesota State University, Mankato, Gervais played in all 41 games for the Mavericks, posting eight goals and five assists, respectable numbers for a freshman. In his sophomore season in 2013-2014, Gervais emerged as one of the top guns for MSU, and was playing his best hockey at the end of the season. 

"One thing I try to do before every game is focus on what makes me good," said Gervais. "Usually if I’m playing physical and with speed I can get to the puck faster which creates more offense."

After posting eight points in the first 25 games of his sophomore campaign, Gervais got hot and scored 11 goals and 18 points over the final 16 games of the season to double his goal production from his freshman season, and ended up with 16 goals and 26 points on the year.

With his breakout sophomore season, the expectations for Gervais to produce this season were higher than they were a year ago, and he has lived up to, if not exceeded those expectations as his success over the second half of last season has carried over into this season.

Ten games into the season, Gervais ranks first in not just the WCHA, but the NCAA in points scored with 14. His nine goals have him tied for first in the nation with Bowling Green's Kevin Dufour, and his four power play goals are also tied for first in the country. Consistency has been the theme for Gervais so far this season, as he has been held pointless in just two games, but has yet to be held pointless in a series.

After recording his first career hat-trick in a Maverick sweater two weekends ago at Bowling Green, Gervais was named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week. He carried that success into this past weekend when he had a four-point game on Friday night versus Bemidji on two goals and two assists. 

Gervais isn't just a goal scorer, though. On Saturday night versus Bemidji State, Gervais saw big minutes on the penalty kill, and set the screen for two of Teddy Blueger's three goals. He also assisted
Gervais tallying his second goal of the night on Friday against
Bemidji State.
on one of Blueger's goals, helping his linemate earn his first career hat-trick.

Watching him play, it's easy to see Gervais' game is built on speed and tenacity. His greatest asset is perhaps the ability to get into the gritty areas and find himself open.

"I try to find open spaces," said Gervais. "If I’m not open I try to get open. It also helps when you’re playing with some really skilled play-makers like Matt Leitner or Teddy Blueger, they always seem to get you the puck."

While his quick start this season will keep him on the radar of college hockey fans and opposing coaches, Gervais is trying to keep his attention on getting the Mavericks further in the postseason. So how can the Mavericks do that?

"Winning our league," said Gervais. "Making it to the NCAA tournament and not only making it but winning a few hockey games while we're there which would push us to our ultimate goal,the Frozen Four."

While the season is still young and there is plenty of hockey left to play, Gervais has established himself as one of the top players in the WCHA this season, and also one of the best in the NCAA.

Mavs earn sweep over Bemidji

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team earned their second sweep of the season this past weekend with two wins over the visiting Bemidji State University Beavers in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series.

The Beavers (3-5-0) seemed poised for a road victory on Friday night, but playing at home, the Mavs (7-3-0) earned a hard fought victory.

Junior Dylan Margonari got things started for MSU just under two minutes into the first period when he took a Bryce Gervais pass and beat the BSU defenders with speed before slipping the puck between Beaver goaltender Michael Bitzers legs for a 1-0 lead. Then Teddy Blueger increased the lead with a shorthand goal where he buried the puck into a nearly wide open net on a perfect feed from Gervais.

BSU would get a power play goal from Matt Prapavessis when he was left alone in the slot and fired a high shot over the shoulder of MSU goaltender Cole Huggins to cut the lead in half.

Then in the second period, it was all Beavers.

Just 26 seconds into the second, John Parker fired a seeing-eye shot into the top corner of the net to tie the game, then Cory Ward buried a goal late in the period to take a 3-2 lead. After the period, MSU Head Coach Mike Hastings pulled Huggins, and junior goaltender Stephon Williams would play the third.

In the third period, the Mavs showed just how dangerous their offense can be. Gervais netted a pair of power play goals sandwiched around Brett Stern’s first goal of the season, then senior Matt Leitner tallied his first of the year on a late empty net goal. The four goal third period gave the Mavericks a 6-3 win on Friday night heading into Saturday’s contest.

On Saturday it was again the Mavs who would strike first when freshman Brad McClure scored his fourth goal of the season on a brilliant play by Margonari. Taking an offensive zone faceoff, Margonari pushed the puck around the BSU centerman and slid the puck to a wide open McClure, who had a wide open net to deposit the puck into.

The Mavericks kept rolling through the first period with a pair of power play goals scored 59 second apart off the stick of Blueger. Nearly identical goals, Blueger manned the power play from the blue line, firing two wrist shots past a screened Andrew Walsh into the Beaver net.

Teddy Blueger netted his first career hat-trick Saturday night
Bemidji would get on the board before the period was over, though. Phil Brewer knocked in a loose puck into the MSU net with just two seconds left in the period net Williams made the initial two saves on the play.

In the second period, BSU would make things interesting when Graeme McCormack tallied a power play goal late in the period, but the Mavericks answered back in dramatic fashion.

Just over a minute after McCormack’s goal, Blueger completed his first career hat-trick, scoring his third goal of the night on a rebound from a C.J. Franklin shot.

The third period ended similarly to Friday night’s game, with Leitner scoring an empty net goal, this time while shorthanded. But before the game was all said and done, BSU tallied one last goal with ten seconds remaining in the game from Nate Arentz to leave the game at 5-3 in favor of MSU.

With the sweep, the Mavericks move to 5-1-0 in WCHA play which is good for second in the league behind undefeated Michigan Tech, who the Mavs play next on the road. After having this weekend off from games, MSU will head to Houghton, Mich. next weekend to play the Huskies in what should be a battle of the top two teams in the WCHA.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Deja vu in Bowling Green

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team experienced some déjà vu this past weekend when they faced off against the Bowling Green State University Falcons. At BGSU, the Mavericks came away with a series split against the Falcons, just as they had done twice last season.
On Friday night, MSU fell behind early when Tyler Spezia put the Falcons on the board 3:31 into the first period. The Mavs fought back, though, and took control of this game.

Jean-Paul LaFontaine buried a power play tally at the midpoint of the first period with assists going to Casey Nelson and Matt Leitner. Tied at one apiece after the first period, the Mavericks took over in the second period to run away with this one.

Just over a minute into the second period, Nelson tallied his first goal of the season with LaFontaine and Brad McClure recording assists on the play. Maverick leading goal scorer Bryce Gervais added to the lead with two second period goals of his own heading into the third period.

Just 33 seconds into the final period, Spezia struck again with his second of the night to close the gap to 4-2, but the night was highlighted by what came next. Gervais netted his third goal of the game for his first career hat-trick and his team leading seventh goal of the season. Freshman C.J. Franklin recorded assists on all three of Gervais’ goals for the first three-point game of his career.

Maverick goaltender Stephon Williams recorded 17 saves on Friday to secure his fifth win of the season.

On Saturday night, the Falcons fought back to earn a series split and avoid a Maverick sweep. BGSU led after one period of play on a goal by Brett D’Andrea for the only tally of the period. Then in the second period, Franklin would tie the game for MSU on his fourth point of the weekend, assisted by Blake Thompson and LaFontaine. The third period was all Falcons, though.

“They're a good hockey team,” MSU Coach Mike Hastings said. “Their bite was good again. And we had opportunities.”

Spezia would score his third goal of the weekend and the eventual game winner before BGSU sophomore Kevin Dufour added a late empty net goal to seal the game up with a 3-1 win. It was Dufour’s NCAA leading ninth goal of the season.

“Not scoring on the power play was our demise,” Hastings said. “It wasn't good enough. One goal on the road isn't going to get it done.”

Williams made 18 saves on the night, but was credited with the loss, bringing his record to 5-2 on the season.

With the split, the Mavericks move to 5-3 on the season and 3-1 in conference play.
"It was a hard game," Hastings said. "That's what it's going to be in this league. We knew this weekend would be a test."

Next up for MSU is a home series this weekend against a much improved Bemidji State University squad. The Beavers come to town for the two game series which is slated for puck drop at 7:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Same conference, new rivalries

When the landscape of college hockey changed a season ago with the formations of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the Big Ten hockey conference, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association saw a great deal of change. 

With many longtime members of the WCHA leaving for the NCHC and Big Ten, only a few remained. It was sad for hockey fans to see the WCHA dismantled, but it did create new rivalries. 

For Minnesota State University, Mankato, Ferris State was the clear rivalry that was created in the new-look conference as they battled for the top two spots in the conference. But another team that was new to the league last season established a bit of a rivalry of their own with MSU. 

Bowling Green State University came to the WCHA from the now defunct CCHA. Last season, the Mavericks faced off against the Falcons four times in the regular season, where the two teams split the season series 2-2. More notably, three of those four regular season contests were decided in overtime. 

The final game between MSU and BGSU took place at the WCHA Final Five tournament, when the Mavericks defeated the Falcons 4-0 to advance to the championship game. 

MSU (4-2) heads to Bowling Green, Ohio this weekend for the first matchup against the Falcons (4-1-1) this season. Last season the Falcons had their scoring spread out fairly event throughout their lineup, but this season they've seemed to find a go-to man. 

Sophomore forward Kevin Dufour leads BGSU and the NCAA in goals with eight in just six games played. Next behind him is Brainerd, Minn. native and Falcon freshman Mitch McClain with three. What Bowling Green excels at that the Mavericks need to be aware of, however, is specials teams. 

The Falcons have a very high 29.6% success rate on the power play this season with an even more impressive 90.5% success rate on the penalty kill. 

Between the pipes is a bit of a question mark for BGSU. Junior Tommy Burke, sophomore Tomas Sholl, and freshman Chris Nell have all played two games apiece this season in a rare, three goaltender rotating style. 

So what do the Mavericks bring to the table this weekend?

After a three goal weekend at home against Alabama-Huntsville, junior forward Bryce Gervais was named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week on Monday. Gervais came on strong the second half of last season and has emerged as one of the top MSU producers on offense. 

Back on the blue line, senior defenseman Zack Palquist has three goals and five assists through six games to lead all defenseman in the NCAA in scoring. Palmquist also ranks fourth in the NCAA in scoring among any position. 

On the back end, Head Coach Mike Hastings has been splitting the minutes for Maverick goaltenders between junior Stephon Williams and sophomore Cole Huggins. Both players have won the WCHA Goaltender of the Year award, and give the Mavericks a confident backstop between the pipes. 

The action begins Friday night at the BGSU Ice Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, with the series being concluded on Saturday night. Both games will start at 6:07 p.m.