Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Mavericks Wrap Up Winter Break in Alaska and Return to Manktao to Face Ferris State

While Minnesota State University, Mankato students enjoyed a month long break from class, the Maverick men’shockey team was hard at work for a good majority of that month. The Mavs kicked things off the Friday of finals week with an away series at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the southernmost NCAA Division I hockey team and a first year member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Junior J.P. LaFonatine leads the
Mavericks with 20 points in 22 games
The Mavericks made the trip to Huntsville riding a five-game winning streak and were able to extend that streak to seven after a two-game series sweep over the Chargers, winning both contests 4-1. Senior captain Johnny McInnis and junior J.P. LaFontaine made their presence felt in Alabama, both recording four points on the weekend. For his efforts, LaFontaine was named the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week.
After returning from Huntsville, the Mavericks played an exhibition game at home against the United States WorldJunior team; a team consisting of the best American players under the age of 21. As far as relevance for this game, it did not count for any WCHA or NCAA standings and served as preparation for Team USA before making their final cuts. In a tight game, the Mavericks were defeated 3-2 by the U.S., who had 20 players drafted by the National Hockey League on their roster. Interestingly enough, one of those players was Maverick freshman Zach Stepan, who played against his teammates, playing for Team USA. Stepan made the final roster and made the trip to Sweden for the World Junior Tournament, though the team did not place.
The Mavs then had a couple of weeks to enjoy winter break before making the long haul to Fairbanks, Ak. just after the new year for a series with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks. This was a special trip for Maverick sophomore goaltender Stephon Williams, who hails from Fairbanks. It was Williams’ first time returning home as a collegiate player, though freshman Cole Huggins started both games between the pipes. Also notable was the return of senior defenseman and assistant captain Josh Nelson, who sat out the previous fifteen games with an injury. The Friday night matchup had MSU hopeful of extending their winning streak, tied with the Nanooks after two periods, but three-third period goals by Alaska ended the streak at seven, beating the Mavericks 4-2.
In the Saturday night game, the Mavs were able to rebound. After Team USA’s early exit from the World Junior tournament, Stepan returned from Sweden and caught a flight to Alaska, able to join his team for the second game of the series. In his return, he got the scoring started for MSU en route to a 6-4 victory that included a three-point night for both LaFontaine and junior forward Chase Grant as well as a series split.
To conclude their winter break, the Mavericks played another series in Alaska.  This time at Anchorage against another WCHA foe, the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. These two teams faced off against one another Thanksgiving weekend in Mankato, where the Mavericks earned a two game sweep over the Seawolves during their seven game win streak. While this time the Mavs were the visiting team, it didn’t quite seem that way.
After playing in Fairbanks, the Mavericks stayed in Alaska for the week leading up to the series with the Seawolves instead of returning home and then back to Anchorage in the same week. The Seawolves on the other hand, were stuck in Minneapolis for the week following a series at the University of Wisconsin Badgers. By Thursday of last week, one day before the series against MSU, the team from Anchorage was finally able to return home with little time to prepare for two important conference games.
The Seawolves remembered being swept by the Mavericks in November, and they got their revenge. Defeating the Mavs by scores of 2-1 on Friday night and 3-1 on Saturday night, Anchorage earned the sweep and climbed to fifth place in the WCHA standings.
Also notable from over the break, sophomore transfer Blake Thompson made his debut as a Maverick against Fairbanks and played both games in Anchorage. Thompson came to Mankato last January after playing five games for the University of Minnesota in 2011-2012, recording two assists. After sitting out one calendar year under NCAA transfer rules, the defenseman from Eden Prairie, Minn. became eligible to play after the conclusion of the fall semester. He becomes the second transfer player to play for the Mavericks after first being a Gopher. Former Maverick captain Michael Dorr also spent a season in Dinkytown before heading to Mankato.
Compiling a 3-3 record in conference games over the month break from classes, the Mavericks maintain a record of 12-10 overall with a 10-6 conference record which is good for third place in the WCHA. Ahead of the Mavericks is Bowling Green in second place, one point ahead of MSU, though the Falcons have played two more conference games than the Mavs. Atop the WCHA are the Ferris State University Bulldogs, who have played fewer games than every team in the conference aside from Northern Michigan, who sits in eight place. The Bulldogs are unbeaten in the WCHA with a 12-0-2 record, and an overall record of 17-3-3 to go along with being ranked number three in the nation.
Though Ferris State seems to be running away with the WCHA regular season, the Mavericks hope to slow them down and fight their way back into second place. The Bulldogs come to Mankato this weekend to face the Mavs in a two game series at the Verizon Wireless Center. MSU is 7-1 at home this season, though Ferris State will be the toughest opponent to enter the Mavericks home arena to this point in the season. It will be interesting to see who Maverick head coach Mike Hastings decides to start between the pipes. The freshman, Huggins, has seen the majority of time this season ahead of last year’s WCHA Goaltender of the Year in Williams.
The Mavs kick off spring semester Friday night when the puck drops at 7:37 p.m. in downtown Mankato with the series concluding with Saturday night’s 7:07 p.m. matchup.

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