Sunday, April 6, 2014

Another great season for the Mavericks

All good things must come to an end. The saying doesn’t ring more true for the Minnesota State University, Mankato Maverick hockey team. The Mavs fell to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks 2-1 in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal game two weekends ago, ending their season. While it was a tough pill to swallow, the Mavericks had plenty of success this season and plenty to be proud of.

“We have no regrets.” said Maverick head coach Mike Hastings. “We left it all out there.”

Hastings during the NCAA tournament press
In his second season as bench boss for MSU, Hastings brought a program that used to set their sights on a .500 season to a program that is a contender for the Frozen Four and a National Championship. Going 26-14-1 this year, MSU set a school record for wins in the Division I era, passing last season’s record of 24.
Not only that, but the Mavs also finished 2nd in the WCHA regular season standings, the highest finish in the program’s 15 years in the conference. Though they fell short of the Frozen Four, the season once again brought the Mavericks to national recognition as a top program in college hockey.

After a slow start going 4-7 through the first 11 games, MSU went on a seven game winning streak through December setting up for a second half of the season push for the NCAA tournament. When first place in the WCHA seemed out of place in January, the Mavs took down the no. 2 team in the country at the time, Ferris State University. Hastings’ Mavericks swept FSU in a two game series, which was the first implication that last year’s success wasn’t a fluke, this team is a contender.

Two weeks after the sweep of Ferris, MSU went on a 13 game unbeaten streak where they went 12-0-1 to finish out the regular season and the WCHA Final Five tournament. Although the Mavs finished second behind Ferris in the WCHA regular season, they went on to sweep Northern Michigan in the first round of the WCHA playoffs before beating Bowling Green State on their way to face off against Ferris in their first Final Five title game.

In the Final Five championship game in Grand Rapids, Mich. the Mavs defeated Ferris 4-1, winning the Broadmoor Trophy for the first time in program history. With the conference tournament title in hand, the Mavericks earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, only their third appearance to the NCAA tournament, but the second in as many years.

While this year’s team was expected to have a great year and make the NCAA tournament, last year’s team set the stage for this program on the rise.

“The aspect of experience teaches you quite a bit.” said Hastings. “A year ago we had a real good regular season and won our first playoff series, but the loss to Wisconsin in the Final Five carried over to the NCAA tournament against [Miami-Ohio].”

After the slow start to the season, the team who was selected as the preseason WCHA champions started picking up their play thanks to players stepping up and playing big.

Junior forward Jean-Paul LaFontaine led the WCHA in scoring for much of the season, finishing with 20 goals and 20 assists for 40 points, which all were career highs. LaFontaine also led the country in power play goals for a good stretch of the season, and finished second in the NCAA with 14 goals on the man advantage. Additionally, he was named All-WCHA Second Team.

Matt Leitner and Cole Huggins after the NCAA regional
loss to UMass-Lowell
Another junior who played a large role in the Mavericks’ success was forward Matt Leitner. Leitner led the team a year ago with 47 points and once again led the team this season, posting a team high 33 assists and 45 points, which landed him at 14th in the nation in points. Leitner was one of three players that were picked
as a preseason favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player. He and LaFontaine were both nominees for the award, but failed to make it into the top ten finalists. Leitner was also named All-WCHA First Team.

Aside from the junior duo, there were also a couple of seniors that added some firepower to the Maverick lineup.

Senior forward Zach Lehrke had retired from hockey before the season due to a muscle condition, but decided to finish out his senior season and joined the team after the first ten games. With Lehrke’s return, the power play went from a nine percent success rate to 25.25 percent which was fourth best in the NCAA. He also finished with a career high 28 points in his 31 games.

Johnny McInnis also carried a big load up front for the Mavs. The senior captain from Boston, Mass. came to MSU and saw limited ice time in his first two seasons as a Maverick. When former coach Troy Jutting was replaced by Hastings, McInnis’ game changed. His junior year, McInnis had somewhat of a breakout season, scoring 13 goals, five of which were game winners. In his final season at MSU, the captain posted career highs of 21 goals and 38 points, and six more game winning goals, leaving him with 14 in his collegiate career. McInnis and Lehkre both were named to the All-WCHA Third Team.

Coach Hastings knows the kind of impact McInnis had on his team.

“It’s going to sting not having him in the locker room.” Said Hastings. “If we continue to bring in people and players like Johnny McInnis we’ll be successful. He’s done some heavy lifting for our coaching staff and he’s going to have the opportunity to play hockey for a while.”

Senior Johnny McInnis waiting for a pass
Indeed he will. McInnis signed a tryout contract with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League, the minor league affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. He will have the opportunity to join fellow
Maverick alumni Eriah Hayes, Tyler Pitlick, Travis Morin, and Ben Youds, who all currently play for AHL teams.

While the loss of Lehrke and McInnis hurt, the Mavs’ future is still bright.

After winning their first Final Five title and making their second NCAA tournament appearance in a row, MSU is now a much more appealing program to prospective hockey players. As the no. 11 team in the NCAA, Mankato is now a destination for hockey players who want a chance at playing in the NCAA tournament, and the attitude in the locker room is that they want more.

“This year was a bit different for us.” said Hastings. “The guys weren’t content with just having some success.”

The freshman class next season appears to be a pretty deep class of recruits, but the returning Mavs will provide an already scary lineup to face.

Leitner and LaFontaine lead the way for the returners, but the emergence of young stars give the lineup even more depth.

Sophomore Bryce Gervais had a breakout season, finishing third on the team with 16 goals. Gervais was essential down the playoff stretch, posting 18 points in the final 16 games of the season while also being a top penalty killer. At the WCHA Final Five tournament, Gervais was named to the All-Tournament team.

While the Mavs seem set up front, on the backend they are also in good shape. On the blue line, junior Zach Palmquist anchors the defensive core. An All-WCHA First Team player, Palmquist led all Maverick defenseman with 23 points. He and All-WCHA Rookie Team defenseman Sean Flanagan will likely log the majority of minutes on the blue line next season. Behind them was another all-star goaltender.

Huggins during the NCAA tournament
 After sophomore Stephon Williams was named the WCHA Goaltending Champion and WCHA Rookie of the Year last season, it appeared the Mavs goalie situation was set. But after a shaky start to his sophomore season, freshman Cole Huggins took over between the pipes. The Centennial, Colo. native was great in net
and racked up honors of his own. Huggins set a school record for single season shutouts with six, and finished as the no. 2 goaltender in the NCAA behind UMass-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck. Huggins was also named this year’s WCHA Goaltending Champion and All-WCHA Second Team. Coming back for next season, he will be the backbone of this Maverick team.

“It’s hard to step in as a freshman and do what he’s done.” said freshman forward Zach Stepan. “It helps us knowing he’s back there to back us up and he’s the biggest reason we’ve come to where we’ve come.”

With two years of NCAA tournament experience under their belts, the Mavericks are now a team on everyone’s radar and a team that can contend for a National Championship in the coming years.

“I know the Frozen Four is in Boston next year, and with the firepower and goaltending coming back along with our coach, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t make it.” said McInnis.

Over the past two years the Maverick program has been building the foundation for a prominent program. While the players put in the work and get the job done, it’s clear that the change came when Hastings was hired as coach.

“He came in here with a plan and made us believe we were a good hockey team from day one.” said McInnis. “He told us we were going to go to places we’ve never been and really made us believe in ourselves.”

Though MSU fell short in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season, they accomplished plenty to build on for the future. With their first back to back trip to the NCAA tournament, first WCHA Final Five championship, and a record 26 wins, the Mavericks will once again rebound and be a preseason favorite by next fall.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The road to Philly

Before last March, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team had only made one NCAA tournament appearance since their move to division one in the 1996-1997 season. Last weekend the Mavericks earned their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament by winning the WCHA Final Five Tournament with a 4-1 victory over no. 1 seeded Ferris State University.

While FSU was a lock for the NCAA tournament regardless of last weekend’s result at the Final Five, the Mavs were a bubble team, and winning the tournament wiped away all uncertainty.

Though making the tournament for the second straight year is huge for the program, the excitement of just getting there isn’t enough anymore. In last year’s NCAA tournament, MSU received a no. 4 seed in the Midwest regional and faced off against the no. 1 seeded University of Miami-Ohio, where the Redhawks ended the Mavericks’ season with a 4-0 victory. While last year there weren’t high expectations for MSU, and it came as a surprise to most that they were one of the final 16 teams standing when the NCAA tournament field was selected, this season carried different expectations.

“Obviously last year we weren’t happy with the way things turned out at the tournament,” said sophomore forward Bryce Gervais, “but we were happy to be there.”

After last season’s success, the Mavs became a team expected to return to the NCAA tournament, and with most of the current roster having a year of tournament experience under their belts, the outlook has changed.

“This year I feel like we are happy to be headed back to the tournament, but we are not satisfied with just making it.” said Gervais. “We want to win.”
Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College will be
the most closely watched player in Worcester

For a program that found itself among the bottom half of the WCHA standings on an annual basis for years, the recent success has put the Mavericks on the map as a contender in college hockey, and certainly helps the recruiting process.  Just two seasons ago, MSU finished 12-24-2 and in 11th place of the then 12 team WCHA. After that season, Troy Jutting was given the boot as head coach and Mike Hastings was hired as the new bench boss. Under Hastings’ leadership the Mavericks are two for two in NCAA tournament appearances and have garnered a record of 50-27-4. Now, players, coaches, and fans like the direction the program is heading in.

“It’s huge,” said Gervais, “we want to be the best, and making the tournament proves that we are making strides and getting better as a program.”

So now that MSU has qualified for another NCAA tournament, what lies ahead for the Mavericks?

Finishing the conference playoff weekend at no. 10 in the NCAA, the Mavs received a no. 3 seed and are being sent to the Northeast regional tournament in Worcester, Mass to play at the DCU Center, home of the AHL Worcester Sharks, where last year’s Maverick captain Eriah Hayes now plays. With no. 1 seeded Boston College, no. 2 seeded University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and no. 4 seeded Denver University. While a former WCHA member in Denver appears to be the only familiar opponent, UMass-Lowell and MSU do have a bit of history between the programs.

In seven meetings between the two teams, the Riverhawks hold a 4-3 edge in wins over the Mavericks, though three of those contests were at the Division II level. In recent history, the teams are 2-2 after MSU swept the Riverhawks in Lowell, Mass. in 2010, with UMass getting revenge by sweeping the Mavs in Mankato in 2011.

Cole Huggins will have be be stellar between the
pipes for the Mavs to advance
This season, the Riverhawks compiled a 25-10-4 record on their way to the Hockey East conference title. The no. 5 team in the nation, UMass doesn’t have any elite scorers, but have the no. 1 ranked defense in the country.

“UMass is a very defensive team and aren’t going to give up much.” said Gervais. “When we get our chances we’re going to have to capitalize.”

Led by the no. 1 goaltender in the country, sophomore goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been the anchor for the Riverhawks. Hellebuyck holds an NCAA best .943 save percentage and a stingy 1.73 goals against average, which also ranks first in the nation. Widely regarded as the biggest snub for the Hobey Baker award for college hockey’s best player, Hellebuyck has a deep lineup playing in front of him.
All roads from here lead to Philadelphia

UMass has 15 players on their roster with ten or more points on the season, led by senior forward Joe Pendenza who has 29, and sophomore Adam Chapie, whose 23 points include five game winning goals.

To keep up, MSU is going to have to match that depth.

“I feel like all four of our lines can score, which takes pressure off our top guys like Johnny McInnis, Leitner, Jean-Paul (LaFontaine), and Lehrke.” said Gervais. “We are going to need all four lines and our defensive group to keep playing the way they’ve been playing for us to be successful.”

The Mavericks on the other hand carry plenty of offensive firepower coming into the NCAA tournament. Of the 16 teams remaining, MSU holds the second best power play in the field, with a 25.26 success rate, just .27 behind St. Cloud State.

The no. 11 team in the nation, MSU is led by some veteran forwards, an up and coming goal scorer, and arguable the best freshman goaltender in the NCAA. Junior forward Matt Leitner leads the way with 44 points and is a catalyst on the power play unit. Then there’s Jean-Paul LaFontaine, who has posted career highs of 20 goals and 20 assists, and his 14 power play goals are the most of any player still playing. Just behind him is senior captain Johnny McInnis, who has buried 21 goals, including six game winners, to go along with 16 assists.

Gervais has been on a scoring streak as of late
Peaking at the right time is Gervais. Known earlier in the season as a top penalty killer and shot blocker for the Mavericks, Gervais has posted 18 points in his last 15 games, 11 of which are goals. But the biggest asset for MSU is between the pipes.

Freshman goaltender Cole Huggins seemingly came out of nowhere to take the starting position away from last year’s WCHA Goaltender of the Year Stephon Williams. The no. 4 goaltender in the NCAA and no. 2 in shutouts, Huggins has posted gaudy numbers himself with a goals against average if 1.91 and a .924 save percentage. The rookie netminder  is coming off an outstanding weekend at the Final Five, where he was named the tournament MVP.

MSU faces off against the Riverhawks on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN 3, with either Denver or BC looming in the championship game for the chance to advance to the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia. As the no. 3 seed in the regional, the Mavs are an underdog to make it out of Worcester this weekend, but it really is a tossup as the separation between the teams is little to nonexistent.

“Everyone still playing at this time of the year is a good hockey club.” Gervais said.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A long time coming

What did the Minnesota State University, Mankato Mavericks do when their NCAA tournament bid was in question? They forced their way in.

Fifteen years after joining the WCHA, the Mavs are finally the champions. Winning their first ever WCHA Final Five tournament secured an automatic big to the NCAA tournament starting this weekend, consisting of just the final 16 teams left in college hockey. It's the second straight season MSU has made the NCAA tournament, the first back to back appearance in program history for the division one era.

Minnesota State celebrates their Final Five Championship
The road to the Broadmoor Trophy wasn't an easy one, though. MSU took on the Bowling Green State University Falcons Friday afternoon in the semifinal game and what was anticipated to be a battle until the final buzzer. In four meetings between the Mavericks and the Falcons this season, each team won a pair of games to go 2-2 in the regular season rivalry, with three of the games going to overtime. This time, overtime wasn't necessary.

After a scoreless first period, junior Chase Grant gave the Mavs a 1-0 lead on a pretty passing play set up by Matt Leitner and Bryce Gervais. Gervais, who has been red hot the past two months, would be heard from again when he scored a shorthanded wraparound goal after some miscommunication between the Falcon goaltender and a BGSU defenseman. With a 2-0 lead after the second period, the Mavs knew they had to keep pressing to prevent a third period push by the Falcons.

Senior captain Johnny McInnis would give the Mavericks an insurance goal when he buried his 21st goal of the year on a great passing play by sophomore Teddy Blueger. McInnis' goal would give MSU a 3-0 lead and all but seal the game until Leitner scored an empty net goal late in the game so put the nail in the coffin, winning 4-0. Gervais would assist on Leitner's goal, giving him his second consecutive three point game. 

Also notable was the Mavericks breaking their school record of 24 wins which was set last season, by earning their 25th this season with the semifinal victory. Not the only record to be broken in the game, Cole Huggins' 36 save shutout, his sixth of the season, set a school record for single season shutouts. Goose egg number six also puts Huggins at second in the NCAA in shutouts. Just a freshman, Huggins carried his outstanding play into Saturday night.

While on paper Ferris State looked to be the Mavericks' opponent in Saturday night's championship game, Alaska-Anchorage made things interesting. The Seawolves led the Bulldogs 4-2 at one point of the game before FSU tied the game and eventually won in overtime, making the WCHA Final Five Championship a true 1 vs. 2 match up.

If there was any buildup for a college hockey conference championship game this weekend, it was for this one. With the University of Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Mercyhurst, and Boston College all exiting their conference playoffs early, the WCHA Final Five was the only tournament that pegged the top two seeds against one another.

With some of the top teams losing early in their conference playoffs, the road to the NCAA tournament was open for unranked teams to push their way in, pushing ranked teams out. Ferris State already secured a spot in the tournament, but for MSU the future was uncertain. It became seemingly more likely that the Mavericks would need to win the Final Five to make their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

Ferris and Minnesota State had faced each other twice this season when the Bulldogs visited Mankato back in January, where the Mavericks swept FSU in a series that included a fight between every player on the ice, multiple game ejections from both sides, and at the time, an unranked Mavs team taking down the no. 2 team in the country. This game is the championship the WCHA had hoped to see, and they got to see a good one.

In a game where it was a must, MSU played like a team that not only wanted to win, but had to win. In what is typical of playoffs in the sports universe, grit and determination won this game. FSU did a good job of keeping the Mavericks to the outside, limiting the quality of scoring chances. With the Maverick leaders being watched closely, it paved the way for some role players to shine.

Maverick freshman Mike Huntebrinker, playing in just his 19th game of the season, got the Mavs on the board first. Scoring just his second goal of the season, Huntebrinker found himself all alone in front of Bulldog goaltender C.J. Motte and redirected a Zach Lehrke pass over Motte's shoulder for a 1-0 lead. Carrying the momentum, the Mavericks made a push to extend the lead, and found the back of the net again just under five minutes later.

Brett Knowles with his first goal of the season
Again, a role player stepping up to score a goal. Junior defenseman and assistant captain Brett Stern, known for his stay at home defensive playing style, looked like a pure goal scorer when he gave MSU a 2-0 lead. With Blueger skating into the offensive zone, Stern followed the play, getting a pass from Blueger and ripping a laser of a shot off the crossbar and into the net to give the Mavs a two goal cushion heading into the second period. Despite the highlight reel caliber goal, Stern credits his teammate for the setup.

"It was a great play by Teddy." said Stern. "He just found me and the puck had eyes."

The Bulldogs would score the only goal of the second period when Gerald Mayhew scored his third goal of the tournament to bring the score to 2-1 with just 46 seconds remaining in the period. There was a penalty on the play which resulted in a FSU power play to start the third period, but the final period was all Mavericks.

MSU appeared to be a team of destiny in the third period. They played hard, they played well, and the bounces seemed to be going in their favor. Sophomore Brett Knowles scored possibly the biggest goal in this game to extend the lead back to two when he gave the Mavericks a 3-1 lead. All alone in front of Motte, Knowles jammed the puck into the back of the net off a Blueger setup for his first goal of the season, and yet again it was a role player giving MSU the momentum.

"Knowles and Huntebrinker, they're our energy guys." said Stern. "They're always wheeling around giving us energy so it's good to see them rewarded for it."

The Mavericks with the Broadmoor Trophy
Ferris kept their foot on the gas though, and created plenty of scary moments for the Mavericks towards the end of the game. With Motte pulled in favor of the extra attacker, MSU sealed the deal when Leitner was able to clear the zone and slide the puck over to Blueger, who scored an empty net goal and his third point of the game to secure a 4-1 victory and MSU's first Final Five Championship.

The Mavericks celebrated the final buzzer with a team hog pile and the chance to hoist the Broadmoor Trophy. Aside from the team hardware coming back to Mankato, individual honors were given to the Mavs. Huggins was named the Final Five Tournament MVP, while he, Blueger, Gervais, and Stern were all named to the All-Tournament team. The leaders of the weekend enjoyed the limelight, but celebrated as a team, enjoying how far they've come.

Senior forward and team captain Johnny McInnis knows just how hard it was to get to this point. He spent is first two seasons at MSU playing for former coach Troy Jutting, when the Mavericks had below .500 records in both of those seasons. Now his junior and senior seasons have seen him breakout as a goal scorer and a leader, as well as two straight NCAA tournament appearances.

"When I first got here it was pretty much a fantasy to be lifting this trophy someday." said McInnis. "It shows how far we've come in the last four years, especially the last two."

Riding high on a wave of emotion, the captain credited his coach for taking the program to the level of national recognition.

"I can't say how thankful I am for [coach Hasitngs] for coming on board and turning us around." said McInnis. "He's been a blessing to our university and to our community."

Coach Hastings inherited a Maverick team that had gone 12-24-2 the year before, and hadn't had an above .500 season since the 2007-2008 season. He took Jutting's team and brought them to the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in ten years with a 24-14-3 record, a program best. He has now surpassed his own program record for wins he set last year with a now 26-13-1 record this season and another trip to the NCAA tournament. 

Hastings doesn't want to take all the credit, though.

Tournament MVP Cole Huggins
"When you put in what you should put in, more often than not the hockey gods pay you back." said Hastings. "You take a look at any level and you can't get it done without outstanding goaltending. They put a push on and [Huggins] made some saves that he shouldn't have."

The Mavericks came in at tenth in the NCAA pairwise and received a no. 3 seed for the NCAA tournament. In their third NCAA tournament appearance, it is the Mavericks' first appearance being seeded higher than a no. 4 seed. The Mavs will take on the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks this Saturday in the NCAA Northeast Regional Semifinal. It's do or die for the Mavericks from here on out, as the NCAA tournament is single elimination. If MSU gets past the no. 2 seeded Riverhawks, they will meet with either no. 1 seeded Boston College or no. 4 seeded Denver for the championship game, leading them to the Frozen Four. The puck drops at 6:30 p.m. this Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., while the game can be viewed on ESPN3.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 WCHA Final Five

The prize on the line this weekend, the Broadmoor Trophy
The 2014 Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Final Five tournament will have a little different look to it than in years past. The Final Five originally consisted of the top six teams from the conference, with the top two seeds getting a bye to the semifinal game, and two quarterfinal games between seeds three through six to advance to the semis. The weekend would end with a championship game, the fifth of the weekend, giving the tournament its name.

Now, with the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the Final Five takes on a new format, and includes some new faces. This year's tournament includes four teams to make up two semifinal games and one championship game. Minnesota State University, Mankato is the only team of the four who played in the 2013 Final Five, with longtime WCHA member Alaska-Anchorage and newcomers Ferris State University and Bowling Green State University joining them this weekend in Grand Rapids, Mich.

So what's on the line for these four teams this weekend? Ferris State heads into this weekend with a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament, meaning for them this weekend is more about winning the tournament and receiving as high of a seed for the NCAA tournament as possible. For MSU, this weekend is a mixed bag. 

The Mavericks are in good position to make the NCAA tournament regardless of results this weekend, though it isn't a guarantee. Sitting at 12th in the NCAA pairwise rankings, the Mavs will make the tournament unless three or four teams outside the top 16 win their conference tournament. However, should the Mavs win the Final Five this weekend, it would give them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which would be their first back to back NCAA appearance in program history during the Division I era.

For Anchorage and Bowling Green, this weekend means extending their season into the NCAA tournament, something that both programs would likely say is overdue for their team. Anchorage has not made the NCAA tournament since 1992, after making three consecutive appearances. Bowling Green on the other hand, hasn't made the tournament since 1990 after being a college hockey powerhouse in the 70's and 80's.

Each of these teams has a shot at taking home the Broadmoor Trophy this weekend as the WCHA Final Five champions, but how did they get here?

Top seeded Ferris State have been a force to reckon with all season long. The Bulldogs have been ranked among the top ten for nearly all of this season and are no. 4 in the nation currently. With a record of 27-9-3, Ferris hasn't lost often, but they have shown they are beatable. MSU swept the Bulldogs back in January in Mankato, and Ferris also played tight games with Anchorage and Bowling Green, who they tied earlier this year. Sitting at no. 3 in the pairwise rankings, the Bulldogs are in position for a no. 1 seed for the NCAA regional tournaments en route to the Frozen Four. Ferris doesn't carry any elite scorers on their roster, but boast a deep lineup where the scoring can come from anywhere, which has been their key to success on the ice this season.

The second seeded MSU Mavericks come into the Final Five with a 24-13-1 record, equaling their school record win total they set last season. The Mavs had high expectations set for them this season, predicted to be among the top ten teams in the country, and picked by WCHA coaches and media to finish first in the conference. After a slow start, MSU has put together a great season, being ranked no. 15 in the nation. Key wins include a sweep over Ferris, a sweep over Anchorage, and a 2-2 record this season against Bowling Green. Though, Anchorage also swept the Mavs, and with two losses against BGSU, MSU shows they too are a team capable of being upset this weekend.

Unlike Ferris, the Mavs have a few players with targets on their backs due to their scoring ability. Senior captain Johnny McInnis and junior Jean-Paul LaFontaine have both hit the 20 goal mark this season, while junior Matt Leitner leads the way with 41 points on the year. Sophomore Bryce Gervais has also been adding to the offensive punch for the Mavericks, scoring 15 goals this season, ten of which have come in his last 13 games. With the third best power play in the NCAA, special teams could be a huge factor in the Mavericks having success this weekend.

Bowling Green, the third seed of the Final Five, were an unexpected surprise this season. After a fairly mediocre season last year in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the Falcons weren't expected to make much noise in the WCHA this year. At 18-14-6, the Falcons come in as the dark horse; the team most likely to pull an upset this weekend. With a 2-2 record against MSU that includes three overtime games, the Falcons cannot be counted out. Similar to FSU, Bowling Green doesn't have one elite scorer, but carries a deep lineup led by junior Dan DeSalvo who has tallied 31 points on the year. This is a big weekend for the Falcons, who need to win the Final Five to earn a spot into the NCAA tournament.

Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Alaska-Anchorage are in the same boat as the Falcons, needing to win the tournament to make the NCAA tournament. After going 4-25-7 last season, the Seawolves have turned things around in dramatic fashion, going 18-15-4 this season. Not expected to be in Grand Rapids this weekend, Anchorage upset Alaska-Fairbanks last weekend, sweeping them to advance to the Final Five. The Seawolves have big wins over no. 6 in the nation Wisconsin Badgers, a sweep over MSU, and a win over Bowling Green. Senior Matt Bailey leads the way for Anchorage, burying 20 goals to go along with 18 assists this season. With the no. 4 seed for the tournament, Alaska will face Ferris State on Friday for a chance to extend their season.

Bowling Green and MSU will also face off against one another on Friday for the chance to play in the Final Five championship game against the winner between Ferris State and Anchorage with the Broadmoor Trophy on the line. Both semifinal games on Friday lead up to Saturday night's championship game at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mavericks in second straight WCHA Final Five

Bryce Gervais has scored 10 goals in his last 13 games
The Minnesota State University, Mankato Mavericks have done it again. The Mavs men’s hockey team returns to the WCHA Final Five for a second straight year and the first back to back appearance in program history. While the Mavs were expected to be at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. next weekend for the tournament, the road there wasn’t an easy one.

The Mavericks had the MacNaughton Cup within reach two weekends ago after a Friday night win over Michigan Tech, but after Tech held the Mavs to a 1-1 tie on Saturday, MSU slipped to second in the WCHA league standings, with Ferris State taking the regular season title and the no. 1 seed for the WCHA playoffs. Still, the Mavs performed well enough to earn the no. 2 seed, and they also earned home ice for the first round of playoff hockey for the second consecutive season.

The Northern Michigan University Wildcats came to town this past weekend hoping to extend their season into the Final Five, but MSU had different plans. In a best of three game series, the Mavericks got out to a 3-0 lead in Friday night’s game with a goal by junior forward Matt Leitner, and a pair of power play goals coming from the sticks of sophomore Bryce Gervais and freshman Sean Flanagan. NMU answered back and scored two of their own to make Maverick fans a little nervous, but freshman goaltender Cole Huggins was able to protect his team’s lead and hold on for a 3-2 win.

With the first victory of the series, the Mavericks had to win Saturday night to prevent a Sunday night rubber match that could have ended either team’s season.

Game two of the series on Saturday night saw the Wildcats fight to keep their season going, and they didn’t give the Mavericks a lead until the game was over. After NMU took a lead at the midpoint of the first period, the Mavericks had trouble finding the back of the net. That was until Leitner scored a beautiful breakaway goal with only .5 seconds remaining in the period. Leitner split the Wildcat defenders, came in all alone on NMU goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom, and lifted a backhand shot over Dahlstrom’s shoulder for a buzzer beating, game tying goal.

The late goal seemed to carry some momentum into the second period as the Mavs continued to pepper shots on Dahlstrom, but the Wildcats answered first in the second period with a goal from Ryan Kesti on a shot that Huggins never saw. But the Mavericks, who hold the third best power play unit in the NCAA, were able to knot the game again when senior captain Johnny McInnis tallid a power play goal late in the second period.

Again heading to the locker room having tied the game, both teams came out firing in the third. For the Mavericks, the third period was the Bryce Gervais show. The Wildcats twice scored power play goals in the third period to take a one goal lead, but each time Gervais answered back to tie the game again. Gervais’ second goal of the game came on the power play with under five minutes left in regulation, sending the game into overtime.

In overtime, it was a freshman who kept the party going for the Mavericks. After a Zach Palmquist blast from the point that got away from Dahlstrom, freshman Zach Stepan collected the loose puck behind the net and jammed it in the net for the game winning goal, extending the Mavericks’ season for at least another week.

Maverick head coach Mike Hastings expressed his excitement after the game.

“I learned a lot about my guys tonight,” Hastings said, “That’s as hard fought of a win as we’ve had all season, every time they made a push we answered the bell.”

Only two wins this weekend separate the Mavericks from the Broadmoor Trophy as the WCHA Final Five champions. The Mavs play Bowling Green on Friday, who they went 2-2 against this season, including three overtime games. If the Mavericks can take down the Falcons, they advance to the championship game on Saturday to face the winner of Ferris State or Alaska-Anchorage. Heading into the tournament, the Mavericks feel confident.

“We don’t play down much and when we did we were able to come back” Stepan said. “We learned tonight that is doesn’t matter if we are down or up, we’ll be able to win the hockey game.”

Coach Hastings also credited the win to the emergence of young players, specifically Gervais.

“Bryce Gervais has just taken his game to a new level” said Hastings.

After a three goal weekend by Gervais, he now has scored 15 goals this season, and ten in his last 13 games. A natural goal scorer who led the British Columbia Hockey League in goals just two seasons ago, it seems he may be starting to breakout at the college level. As for any change in his game that’s helped him raise his game, he says it’s mental.

“My mental preparation was lacking for a while,” Gervais said, “now I’m just more focused.”

The Mavs are going to need that focus to get them to the NCAA tournament, as right now they may not be a shoe-in. MSU sits 12th in the NCAA pairwise rankings, with the top 16 teams making the NCAA tournament. Right now, it looks as if the Mavs will likely make their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, but there are no gaurentees. If any teams below the top 16 wins their conference tournament, they push out the bottom of the top 16. If the Mavericks are able to win the WCHA Final Five this weekend, they receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and likely a more favorable seed.

“This weekend showed us nothing is going to come easy” Gervais said, “we’re going to have to work just as hard up at Van Andel.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Deja vu between the pipes

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team came into this season sure of a few things; they would compete for the WCHA title, their top offensive performers would shine, and they would have the league's best goaltender between the pipes. Interestingly enough, the goaltender they pegged to be their go-to man last season was replaced earlier this season. No worries for the Mavericks, though, as freshman Cole Huggins has emerged as the best goaltender in the league.

A year ago, sophomore goaltender Stephon Williams was racking up multiple honors from the WCHA. He was awarded WCHA Rookie of the Year, WCHA Goaltender of the Year, First team All-WCHA, and WCHA All-Rookie team. Williams did so well last season that the New York Islanders selected him in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. So when this season started, it was considered a certainty that Williams would lead the way for the Mavs as they embarked on their journey into a newly constructed conference where they were the favorite to take home the crown.

Huggins also believed Williams would see the majority of minutes.

"I really didn't see myself playing as much as I did this year" he said, "I knew coming into the year Stephon played a lot the previous year and was expected to be the main guy this year, so I didn't see myself playing as many games as I have."

Huggins quietly waited for his opportunity. The Centennial, Colo. native came to Mankato from Coquitlam, B.C. where he played two seasons of junior hockey with the Coquitlam Express of the British Columbia Hockey League, widely regarded as the second best junior league in North America behind the United States Hockey League. Coming in as a freshman, Huggins assumed the role of second string goaltender, knowing he would get his minutes to prove himself. After seeing little action through the first six games of the season, Huggins got his shot at home against the Bowling Green State University Falcons early in November. After Williams struggled in the Friday night game, Huggins played the second half of the game which ended in a 4-3 Mavericks loss. However, the next night Huggins led his team to a 1-0 overtime victory over the Falcons with a 33 save shutout, the first of four this season. Since then, the net has been all Huggins'.

Just two weeks after he cemented his place in the net for the Mavs, Huggins again posted an overtime shutout victory over Bowling Green, and this time it earned him WCHA Rookie of the Week honors for the week of Nov. 18th. Huggins now boasts a 16-7 record this season, and his 16-4 WCHA record has him atop the leader board for goaltender winning percentage, with a staggering .800 winning percentage. But that's not the only place Huggins' name appears on the leader board.

In combined goaltending statistics, Huggins ranks as the no. 10 goaltender in the NCAA, while his four shutouts are fourth best in the country. He holds a steady .917 save percentage, a category he ranks third in the WCHA, and a 2.08 goals against average, while his stingy 1.86 goals against average in conference play has him at first. Last weekend, Huggins racked up another honor to his list of accomplishments this season, when after two wins and a shutout at Lake Superior State University he was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week.

Earlier in the season, Maverick head coach Mike Hastings said of Huggins, "He goes to work every day, that doesn't go unnoticed."

It's just that kind of work ethic that has gotten Huggins to where he is. The way things look now, Huggins is in a great position to win any or all of the WCHA awards that Williams won just a year ago. More importantly, the saddle will be placed on his back as he'll be the go-to guy in net this time around in the postseason. But the rookie remains modest.

"I try to just keep my mind focused on the play that is going on and play one period at a time" said Huggins, "the defense has really made my job easier so far this year."

Huggins with a save versus St. Cloud State
The Mavericks have already clinched home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, just as they did last season when they defeated the University of Nebraska-Omaha in three games to advance to their first WCHA Final Five since 2003. Huggins and the Mavs hope they can duplicate that success and return to the Final Five in 2014, and this time, they're one of the favorites to sit on the throne atop the conference, catapulting them into the NCAA tournament for a second straight season.

"It will be great for us to hopefully get a piece of hardware this weekend and we hope to go on to do some damage in the WCHA playoffs" Huggins said, "ultimately we want to make the NCAA tournament."

The Mavs wrap up their regular season with the final WCHA series of the year at home against Michigan Tech University. The Huskies have been a long time member of the WCHA and a familiar opponent, but this weekend holds high stakes. MSU is battling for a sweep to earn the no. 1 seed for the WCHA playoffs and also for the opportunity to hoist the MacNaughton Cup, awarded annually to the WCHA regular season champion. Tech on the other hand, is looking for a big weekend to remain in third place of the WCHA, assuring them home ice for the first round of playoff hockey.

In what has been a crazy year for hockey in the WCHA, nine out of the conference's ten teams have a shot at the playoffs, with the top eight all having a chance for home ice, pending this weekend's results.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rise to the top

Just a couple of months ago, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team seemed paced for second place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association behind the Ferris State University Bulldogs. Before the two teams faced off in January, the Bulldogs seemed to be cruising through conference play, six points ahead of the Mavericks, and first place seemed out of reach for MSU. After Alaska-Fairbanks pulled off a sweep over Ferris last weekend, the Mavericks are now tied for first place in the WCHA, holding the tie breaker over the Bulldogs after sweeping them at home in that January series.

After a sweep over Lake Superior State University last weekend that included 5-0 and 4-3 victories, the Mavericks finally closed the gap. With 38 points in WCHA play, the Mavs and the Bulldogs sit in first place, far enough ahead of the rest of the conference where neither team will slip below second place. Two games remain on each team's schedule, with the Mavericks playing at home this weekend against long time WCHA opponent Michigan Tech, while Ferris State will play Lake Superior State University this weekend to close out the regular season.
the WCHA MacNaughton Cup
So what's on the line this weekend? If the Mavs earn equal or more points this weekend than Ferris does in their series with LSSU, they will earn their first ever MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the regular season champion of the WCHA. Last year's winners were St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota. Although it would also be Ferris State's first MacNaughton Cup, they are a first year member of the WCHA, while the Mavs have been chasing the regular season crown for the past fourteen seasons. This weekend also has carries some pressure for the postseason.
While the Mavericks have already clinched home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, earning the no. 1 seed would give them a more favorable matchup to advance to the WCHA Final Five tournament later this month. As they are now, the Mavs are ranked no. 17 in the NCAA pairwise rankings, with the top 16 going to the NCAA tournament. Although a sweep over Michigan Tech this weekend could launch them into the top 16, MSU cannot rely on the pairwise to make the NCAA tournament.
Teams that win their conference tournament earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, so it's possible for the lower ranked teams in the top 16 to be pushed out by unranked teams winning their conference tournament. The Mavericks may have to win the WCHA Final Five to make their second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Zach Lehrke is one of the Mavs' top PP players
How will the Mavs get there? With a record of 21-13, the Mavericks are led by the third best power play unit in the country, and the Mavericks have been outstanding with the man advantage. Seniors Zach Lehrke and Johnny McInnis, along with juniors Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner, see the
majority of minutes on the power play, and are a constant threat to score when playing a man up. LaFontaine stands second, and McInnis fifth in power play goals scored in the NCAA, with both players being among the top ten in the nation in overall goals scored. Matt Leitner has also gained some national attention, standing sixth in the nation in assists with 29.
Though the Mavericks have been one of the best at scoring with the extra man, they have also been one of the best at killing off opposing power plays. MSU's penalty kill is fifth in the nation, and has produced four shorthanded goals, with two coming off the stick of sophomore Bryce Gervais. While special teams have been favorable for these Mavs, the back end has been the biggest surprise for MSU this season.

Huggins with a save against Minnesota
Freshman Cole Huggins came in expected to play backup to last year's WCHA Goaltender of the Year, sophomore Stephon Williams. Huggins took over the starting role in November, and has been stellar ever since. In overall goaltending statistics, he is the tenth ranked netminder in the country, and the only WCHA goalie in the top 15, leaving it likely that he could be named this year's conference goaltending champion. His four shutouts this season have him at fourth in the nation, and he has been a pleasant surprise for the Mavs this season after Williams has struggled to find his game.

The next stop for the Mavs on the road to the NCAA tournament is a series with Michigan Tech this weekend. The Huskies come to town for a two game series at the Verizon Wireless center in downtown Mankato, where MSU is 15-1 this season. Tech is 14-16-6 this season, but cannot be taken lightly as they have handed Ferris State one of their six WCHA losses.

The puck drops Friday at 7:37 p.m. with an earlier 7:07 p.m. start for Saturday night's WCHA regular season finale at VWC.