Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hockey Season Can't Come Soon Enough

Minnesota State Mavericks men's hockey 2013-2014 season preview. From 9/26/2013 edition   of the MSU Reporter.

A couple of weeks ago I did a preview of the new Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the conference that the Minnesota State Mavericks play in for hockey. The preview gave insight to where teams came from and how they are expected to perform in the newly constructed conference. Based on last season’s results, the Mavericks are considered by most to be the early favorite. ESPN analyst and a widely known college hockey supporter, John Buccigross, ranked Minnesota State 7th in the nation in his personal college hockey poll. USA Today had the Mavericks a little lower at 14th, but it’s safe to say they are now on everyone’s radar. Let’s take a look at what we can expect to see from the MSU Men’s Hockey Team this season.
ESPN Anchor John Buccigross' top 10 College
Hockey rankings.
            Last season’s leading goal scorer Eriah Hayes finished with 20 goals on the season and was a constant threat on the power play. He has since graduated and signed with the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League as a free agent. The Mavericks will look to fill that role, but may not have to look too far. Redshirt Junior Matt Leitner returns after he finished tenth in the nation among offensive production with 17 goals and 30 assists for 47 points. Leitner also finished third among sophomore players in scoring and will be one of the nation’s most closely watched players this season. Although it cannot go without recognition that goaltender Stephon Williams will play a large part in MSU’s success. The sophomore racked up First Team All-WCHA and WCHA Rookie of the Year honors last season. The biggest factor for their success, however, will likely be their depth on the roster.
            Although Hayes and Leitner were often times the focal point of the Maverick offense, aside from them the scoring was pretty evenly distributed across the board. Of the players returning, twelve players finished with ten or more points last season, four of which finished with over twenty. Included in that group is junior J.P. Lafontaine, who recorded 35 points to finish third on the team and second in assists with 26. Also among the top returners is senior forward Johnny McInnis who had a breakout season in 2012-2013 scoring 13 goals, five of which were game winning goals, the most on the team. Junior defenseman Zach Palmquist recorded 25 points last season to lead all blue-liners in scoring. So what exactly does this mean for the Mavericks?
            Heading into the newly constructed WCHA, the Mavericks have many advantages over their opponents. They have a great amount of depth on their roster which is significant because it prevents Hastings from attempting to match his top line against an opponent’s top line. While teams such as Ferris State, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Michigan Tech may challenge MSU in league play, they don’t have the depth to match them. Hastings will be able to put any line of players on the ice and be confident they will get the job done.
 The teams in the new WCHA are considered to be inferior to the teams who left the WCHA for greener pastures in the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conferences. This helps the Mavericks in conference play as the weaker teams will have to play their top players more often to keep up, and will be fatigued easier than a team like MSU, who has many skilled players. MSU also returns playoff experience, which many of the teams in the WCHA do not have. As the only team to make the NCAA Tournament in 2013, the Mavericks will use that to their advantage in attempt to make back to back trips to the tournament.
            The NCAA Tournament format is a bit different this year, however, which could help or hurt the Mavericks. The teams from each conference who win their conference tournament get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, as it has been in the past, but at large bids will be different. The top sixteen teams at the end of the season make it into the postseason tournament, unless a lower ranked team wins their conference tournament, which then bumps the lowest of the top sixteen out. What changes this season is that in determining the ranking of the top sixteen teams, the value of home and away games and strength of opponent is different.
            More value will be given to wins on the road than to wins at home. Also, more points will be given in the rankings when defeating a top 20 ranked opponent, with the point value being higher if the team is ranked higher. This could be good for the Mavericks as they should have no trouble being one of the top, if not the top team in their conference. If they can do well in conference play, regardless of home or away games, they should be in good shape. They can also make the NCAA Tournament by winning the WCHA Conference Tournament at the conclusion of league play. MSU also will play a competitive nonconference schedule this season which can help their chances to reach the postseason if they can win these games against ranked opponents.
            The Mavericks open up the season with a nonconference series at Providence, who ranked 20th in the preseason poll. The biggest test will be when the Mavericks travel to Mariucci Arena to play Minnesota in a two game road series on November 15th. The Gophers are ranked 5th by USA Today’s poll and even a series split with Minnesota would greatly help MSU in the NCAA rankings. The nonconference games will be capped off by the first annual North Star College Cup, a tournament consisting of the Minnesota Division I hockey teams where the Mavericks will play Minnesota-Duluth followed by a game against either St. Cloud State or Minnesota. All of these games would be considered away games and raise their ranking if they prevail successful.

            Minnesota State kicks off their season with an exhibition game at the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato on Sunday, October 6th at 5pm against Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada). The first regular season game for the Mavericks will be on October 11th, when they travel to Providence for a nonconference series.

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