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.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Break out the brooms

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team started conference play off right this past weekend with a sweep at home over visitors Alabama-Huntsville. With their first Western Collegiate Hockey Association series of the 2014-2015 season, the Mavericks peppered the Chargers with shots all weekend, but had a little trouble finding the back of the net behind Chargers goaltender Carmine Guerriero. 

On Friday night, MSU outshot Huntsville 18-7 in the first period, and 19-7 in the second period, but the game remained scoreless heading into the third. The Mavericks didn't want the Chargers hanging around too long, though, and J.P. LaFontaine put the Mavs on the board first with a goal 51 seconds into the third period. 

"It's frustrating, but the way we looked at it, they hadn't been in our end," said LaFontaine. "We thought, it will go in eventually."

Senior Matt Leitner threaded a short pass through a Huntsville defender to LaFontaine, who went top shelf over Guerriero's blocker to take a 1-0 lead.  Shortly after, the Mavs would extend their lead. 

Junior forward Bryce Gervais would bury his second goal of the season 3:31 into the third on a power play after a Michael Huntebrinker shot was kicked out by Guerriero and on to the tape of Gervais who pumped it home for a 2-0 lead. 

"We didn't get rattled," said Gervais. "We tried to focus on the positives."

Though a series of penalties put the Mavericks at a five on three disadvantage late in the third period, MSU a killed off the penalties to get back to even strength. Then with 30 seconds remaining in the game, the Chargers scored a goal from Brandon Carlson to cut the lead in half with their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker. 

However, on the ensuing face off, senior Zach Palmquist dumped the puck into the empty net to seal up a 3-1 Maverick victory and earn their first two WCHA points of the season. In dominating fashion, MSU outshot the Chargers 57-18 in this one, with Guerriero making 54 stops. 

"Goalies at this level, you give them an opportunity to see the puck and they're going to stop it," said Maverick Head Coach Mike Hastings. "[Guerriero] was good. We had some real quality opportunities."

On Saturday the Mavericks didn't throw as many shots at the Charger goal, but had more luck finding the back of the net. 

Senior captain Chase Grant put the Mavs up in the first period when he redirected a Jordan Nelson pass that found it's way past Guerriero. Palmquist also recorded an assist on the play. Huntsville fought their way back, though. 

In the second period, Josh Kestner deflected a shot past MSU goaltender Stephon Williams to even the score at one apiece. From there, the Mavs kept rolling through. 

"That's about as solid a period as we've played," said Hastings. "On both sides of the puck I liked our teams responsibility with and without the puck."

Gervais scored a slick goal on the power play when Huntebrinker found him alone in front of the Charger goal and set him up for the go-ahead goal. Then in the third period, freshman C.J. Franklin found Teddy Blueger streaking through center ice, and Blueger made a few quick moves around Guerriero before burying a highlight reel goal to extend the lead to 3-1. 

Gervais would finish things off with his third goal of the weekend and second of the night while short handed when Leitner threaded a breakaway pass to him and Gervais slid it between Guerriero's legs for a 4-1 lead. 

With the sweep, the Mavericks move to 4-2-0 on the season and 2-0 in conference play. Notable around the WCHA, conference rival Ferris State was swept this past weekend by Michigan Tech. Last season, MSU and Ferris State battled as the top two teams in the league. 

"After losing the third period at home last weekend, it was nice to play the way we did this weekend." Hastings said. 

Next up for MSU is a road series this weekend at Bowling Green State University. Last season MSU went 3-2 against BGSU, including a victory in the WCHA Final Five Tournament. Puck drop for this series is at 6:07 p.m. for both Friday and Saturday night's games. 


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Another split for the Mavericks

Another non-conference series, another split for the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team. The Mavericks headed north to Duluth for Friday night's matchup against the University of Minnesota-Duluth that saw a scary comeback capped by an overtime win. 

Freshman forward C.J. Franklin got things rolling for the Mavericks in the first period Friday night when Matt Leitner found him in the slot and Franklin fired home a one-timer past UMD goaltender Matt McNeely. Later in the first, Jordan Nelson extended the Maverick lead to two when he turned around and fired a low shot that fooled McNeely and found its way to the back of the net. 

After Bulldog forward Kyle Osterberg took a major penalty for checking from behind in the second period, the Mavs were granted a five minute power play. Though UMD forward Dom Toninato scored a short handed goal to cut the lead in half, the Mavericks made the most of their lengthy power play by scoring two of their own. 

Junior center Teddy Blueger scored a similar goal to Nelson's when he took a behind the back shot that trickled through McNeely's legs, then J.P. LaFontaine found Brad McClure alone in front and McClure went upstairs over the glove of McNeely for his third tally of the season. 

With a 4-1 lead, the Mavericks seemed poised to cruise to an effortless victory in this one. But the Bulldogs were scratching at the door all night. 

Adding a power play goal of their own, Carson Soucy put UMD back in the game when he snuck one past MSU goaltender Stephon Williams before Bulldog captain Adam Krause sniped the top corner past Williams to end the second period only down 4-3. 

The third period only saw one goal, and it was a big one. Late in the third, UMD's Tony Cameranesi took a shot from the boards that got redirected twice before reaching the net, leaving Williams with no chance of making the stop. Freshman Karson Kuhlman would be credited with the goal, the first of his career at UMD. 

As the teams headed to overtime, Krause took an untimely penalty that put MSU on the power play. After senior Zach Palmquist fired a shot on goal from the point, freshman Zeb Knutson pushed a rebound past McNeely for the overtime victory and his first goal in a Mavericks sweater. 

Saturday night's home opener in Mankato saw the first ever championship banner raising at the Verizon Wireless Center, celebrating last season's WCHA Final Five tournament championship. After the banner raising, this game was mostly all Bulldogs. 

Dylan Margonari opened up the scoring early when he stuffed in a loose puck in the crease, putting the Mavs up 1-0 on home ice. Then in the second period, Osterberg went top shelf on MSU goaltender Cole Huggins to tie the game.

Soucy would score his second goal in as many nights to put the Bulldogs up 2-1 before the Mavs came back on a Brett Stern shot right off an offensive zone face off that Chase Grant deflected into the UMD goal. 

With the score tied at two after two periods, it seemed like the third period would be a tight one, but that wasn't the case in this game. 

Toninato recorded another short handed goal on the weekend when he put the Bulldogs up 3-2 on an absolute ripper of a shot that found the top corner past Huggins. Special teams would come in handy again for UMD when freshman Jared Thomas was found all alone on the top of the goal crease and tapped in a power play goal to extend the lead to 4-2. 

In an effort to get back in the game, Maverick head coach Mike Hastings pulled Huggins in favor of an extra attacker up front, but it backfired. Thomas struck again with an empty net goal to all but seal the game for the Bulldogs. After UMD took a late penalty, Cameranesi tallied another empty net goal while short handed to clinch the series split with a 6-2 win. 

"The first two periods were a wash," said Hastings. "Not a great reaction from us coming out in the third."

While a loss at home where the Mavs were 16-0-1 last season may have put a damper on the weekend, a 2-2 record heading into conference play isn't a bad way to start the season. The Mavericks will have to go to work on their power play, though, as they were scoreless on six power plays on Saturday night. 

"Special teams win and lose hockey games," said Hastings. "I think this game showed that."

The Mavericks slipped one spot to no. 13 in the NCAA, but a split against a team ranked among the top 20 doesn't necessarily hurt their season. 

"These weekends are big for the pair wise rankings," said senior captain Brett Stern. "They help us get into the NCAA tournament."

MSU hits the ice again this weekend in their first conference series of the season when Alabama-Huntsville comes to town. The puck drops in downtown Mankato at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday night. 


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mavericks come away with a road split in Omaha

The Maverick men's hockey team from Minnesota State University, Mankato hit the road this past weekend for their first series of the 2014-2015 season. Playing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, the Mankato Mavericks came away with a series split versus the Mavericks in red. 

On Friday night, things looked to be going well for MSU when senior defenseman Zach Palmquist tallied his first goal of the year to go up 1-0 just 44 seconds into the game with assists going  to Bryce Gervais and Matt Leitner. UNO didn't let the goal kill their momentum at home, though. 

Eden Prairie native and UNO freshman defenseman Luc Snuggerud scored his first collegiate goal to even the score at one apiece before another Minnesota product put one in the net. Former Hill-Murray standout and Woodbury native Jake Guentzel put away a goal on the power play to put the red Mavericks up 2-1 to close out the first period. 

The second period saw the UNO power play strike again as Austin Ortega netted a goal from Snuggerud and Guentzel to extend the lead to 3-1 until sophomore  Casey Nelson scored an MSU power play goal to close the gap. 

MSU freshman Brad McClure scored his first collegiate goal in the third period to tie the game, but Omaha just had more firepower that night. Ortega would strike again on the power play with Guentzel getting the lone assist, then Dominic Zombo collected a late empty net goal to give UNO a 5-3 Friday night win. 

Saturday night's game went a little differently for these two teams. 

After two first period Omaha goals from Duluth native Jake Randolph and Guentzel, MSU Head Coach Mike Hastings pulled goaltender Cole Huggins down 2-0. Junior Stephon Williams played the rest of the game between the pipes. 

Down 2-0 after a period, Minnesota State exploded in the second period. 

Gervais scored his first of the year to cut the lead in half, then Palmquist scored his second goal in as many nights to even the score at two. 

Later in the period, McClure also scored his second of the weekend to give MSU the lead with assists going to J.P. LaFontaine and Sean Flanagan. Senior captain Chase Grant gave MSU an insurance goal to spot a 4-2 lead heading into the third period. 

"I didn't see guys pulling apart at the seems," Hastings said. "That's a positive."

There wouldn't be any scoring in the third period, and Williams would make all ten shots he faced to secure a win for the purple Mavericks. It was an important win for MSU to avoid starting the season 0-2, and a road split isn't a bad way to get things going. Hastings was happy to split, but wasn't pleased with Friday night's effort. 

"We should have had a lot left in the tank after [Friday]," Hastings said. "There weren't a lot of ice bags handed out."

Heading into this weekend where MSU will play a tough Minnesota-Duluth team, the purple Mavericks may have a better feel about their team identity with a couple games under their belts. 

"We learned a lot as a staff about our team," said Hastings. "I think we learned a lot about ourselves being down two-nothing on the road and coming back and having the second period we had. "

MSU heads north to Duluth for Friday night's series opener at Amsoil Arena before coming back to Mankato for Saturday night's game. Puck drop is at 7:07 p.m. in Duluth Friday, and 7:07 p.m. Saturday night at the Verizon Wireless Center in downtown Mankato. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mavericks at Mavericks

On Sunday night the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team took to the ice for their first matchup of the year in an exhibition game against Trinity Western University (B.C.). The Mavericks cruised by the Spartans in a 12-1 romp where they outshot Trinity 53-5. 

Though an entertaining game for Maverick fans to see all that scoring, these are mere tune up games to get the team back into a game mentality. This weekend the Mavs face their first true test of the season. 

On the road for a two game non conference series, Minnesota State faces off against the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks this weekend. UNO, a former member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, now plays in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. While these two teams used to be conference foes, they haven't played since the first round of the WCHA playoffs in 2013 when MSU defeated UNO in a three game series at home to advance to their first WCHA Final Five appearance since 2003.

While UNO  went 17-18-2 last season and have missed the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, they cannot be overlooked. Last season, MSU had a rough start, going 4-6 in their first ten games and had to go on a 12-0-1 run to win the WCHA Final Five and make it into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. Wins in these non conference series's help in the NCAA Pairwise rankings, making it so a team doesn't have to win their conference to make the NCAA tournament. 

The UNO Mavericks may appear on paper to be the inferior team this weekend, but they have plenty of firepower up front to give MSU a good run. Leading scorer Dominic Zombo returns after burying 17 goals last season along with sophomore Jake Guentzel who posted 34 points including 27 assists. A big help could be former Duluth East standout Jake Randolph. Randolph led the United States Hockey League in scoring last year on his way to garnering league MVP honors. He's a potential NCHC Rookie of the Year winner this season. 

MSU has plenty of big guns up front too, though. Seniors Matt Leitner and J.P. LaFontaine return as a dynamic duo who led the third best power play unit in the country a season ago. LaFontaine led the nation in power play goals for much of the season until finishing second by season's end. 

“I feel like I’ve improved every year,” LaFontaine said. “Coach Hastings expects a lot each and every year and that expectation keeps getting higher and higher.”

The offensive geniuses the Mavericks have should help this weekend, but their biggest asset may be in goal. 

Sophomore Cole Huggins is expected to start the season as the no. 1 goaltender after winning WCHA Goaltender of the Year last season and being a Second-Team All-WCHA goaltender. Behind him is junior Stephon Williams, who won Goaltender of the Year the previous season. 

Two wins this weekend would get MSU off to a good start before they play in-state rivals Minnesota-Duluth next weekend in a home and home series. 

The puck drops at 7:37 p.m. Friday night at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha with a 7:07 p.m. start on Saturday evening


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NFC North Preview

The 2014 NFL regular season is approaching quickly and the question us Minnesota fans are asking is, "Where do the Vikings stand?"

It's a fair question as the Vikings have some question marks on the field, though the rest of the division is similar. The NFC North seems to be fairly wide open, with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Green Bay Packers all finishing with nearly identical records in 2013, though the Packers were the only team of the three to make the playoffs. Minnesota was in the cellar of the NFC North with a 5-10-1 record and a scary 0-7-1 on the road. It wasn't a great season for any of the NFC North teams, so what can we expect this season?

Though appearing to be a wide open division, the Packers look to be the favorite. As three-time defending division champions, Green Bay will look to defend their crown after an 8-7-1 season, and have plenty of weapons to accomplish it. Despite being a pass first team, the absence of Aaron Rodgers last season saw the emergence of a rookie superstar in the backfield. Running back Eddie Lacy topped 1,400 yards last season on his way to becoming Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Aaron Rodgers returns healthy, which believe it or not could actually make Green Bay a Super Bowl threat. Rodgers has Lacy behind him to go along with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb at receiver for a potent offense. The Packers defense is going to be shaken up a bit which could also mean trouble for opposing teams.

The move of Julius Peppers from defensive end to linebacker is interesting and could be a huge help for the Pack. 2014 first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should be an impact player in his rookie season at safety, also aiding a stingy defense.

The biggest challenge for the Pack may be Chicago. An 8-8 record is nothing to brag about, but the Bears finished second in the league in points scored, and that was with starting quarterback Jay Cutler injured. The problem for the Bears was they had the worst run defense in the NFL last season, though the additions of Jared Allen from the Vikings and Kyle Fuller from this year's draft could certainly help.

Expect the Bears to have one of the best offenses in the league again this season, as Jay Cutler is healthy and all of his weapons are back too. With one of the best running backs in the league behind him in Matt Forte, the running game is taken care of. But down field Cutler has a dynamic duo in Pro Bowl receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If their players stay healthy, I think at worst the Bears are a wild card team, but certainly have a chance at dethroning Green Bay as divisional champions.

A possible dark horse flying under the radar is Detroit. They have the tools to be an elite offensive power in the division, though quarterback Matt Stafford can't find his niche. Stafford's play can look brilliant at times, but he also can look like a lost rookie. Finding consistency will be the key to Stafford's success. Behind Stafford is running back Reggie Bush, who seemed to find his place in Detroit last season.  And you can't forget about the receivers. Calvin Johnson has prove himself as one of the best receivers in the game, and now has Golden Tate to take some of the load off his back.

The Lions finished pretty much middle of the pack in the NFL in both offensive and defensive statistics in 2013, so they could just as easily fall down the ladder as they could climb it. If their offense can find some consistency, they could be in the hunt for the NFC North.

Minnesota is the team most people are probably counting out, but they could find themselves in the mix. Last season's quarterback situation was a disaster that has finally been figured out. Veteran Matt Cassel will take the snaps to begin the season, which seems like the best option. Although rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has looked great in preseason, Cassel has the experience and though not an elite quarterback, has enough talent to get the job done.

The best running back in football today, and one of the greats of all time, belongs to the Vikings. Adrian Peterson can be expected to have another incredible season, but at a certain point Minnesota needs to stop relying on him for all their offense. With Cassel behind center and an emerging star at receiver in Cordarrelle Patterson to go along with veteran Greg Jennings, the Vikings should see improvements.

Their defense is the question mark, where they were the worst in the NFL last season. Jared Allen is gone to Chicago, but 2014 first round pick Anthony Barr as looked capable in preseason. Harrison Smith being healthy is also huge for the Vikings' defense.

The NFC North will likely see Detroit and Minnesota try and battle their way into the discussion for the top two spots in the division, but Chicago and Green Bay appear on paper to be too strong and it may be a two-horse race for the crown. With only a week until the start of the regular season, get ready for a wild ride in the NFL this season.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vikings defensive line going through some renovations

The Minnesota Vikings had one of the worst defenses in the NFL during the 2013 season. They finished in the bottom two of the league in points against and yards against. Though there is reason to be optimistic. With new defensive coordinator George Edwards coming in to shake things up, and the players returning, there’s no reason the Vikings defense shouldn’t make big strides this season.

The loss of Jared Allen at defensive end hurts, but Minnesota should still be okay with what they have.
Brian Robison and Everson Griffin return on defensive end with 64 tackles and 14.5 sacks between the two in 2013. It seems likely that these will be the guys playing the majority of snaps on the ends. From there, it looks like there might be a variety of players splitting time among each other.

Linval Joseph comes to Minnesota from the New York Giants. The 6’4”, 323 lb. defensive tackle brings monstrous size to the line and some good experience. Joseph had 33 tackles in 2013 to go along with a fumble recovery and three sacks. He was a starter for the Giants in the past three seasons, so expect to see him on the line when the season opener at Detroit comes around.

On the other side, it looks like Sharrif Floyd and Fred Evans will likely split time at defensive tackle. In 2013, Floyd and Evans combined for two forced fumbles, 25 tackles, and 2.5 sacks. Neither would be a clear favorite to start, but both are capable of getting the job done. Some of the new guys in the room will give these five a run for their money, though.

Corey Wootton comes to the Vikings as a free agent from the Chicago Bears. At 6’6”, he’s got tremendous height for a defensive end and boasts some impressive stats. Last season, Wootton had 28 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, and five blocked passes. For a team that gave up the second most pass yards in the NFL last season, he could definitely be an asset.

The rest of the depth chart is quite uncertain at this point. Defensive end Tom Johnson from the New Orleans Saints brings four years of NFL experience to the table, and recorded two sacks last season. He could challenge for reps, though as an end, he has some pretty good players ahead of him. 2014 draft picks Scott Crichton and Shamar Stephen both bring some size to the roster, but their youth may limit their reps during their rookie season.

Edwards believes there will be improvements in the Vikings defensive line now that he is at the helm, and that’s exactly what they need.


 "There was a lot of holes there when we first came in here.” said Edwards. “We’ve added some new players to that position. One thing you always like to see is guys working together and trying to help each other, and you see that group right now coaching each other when we’re not around, helping each other, trying to talk about pointers, trying to talk about the message that we’re trying to get accomplished, what we’re trying to do schematically, defensively the fundamentals and techniques of it."