Wednesday, February 26, 2014

LaFontaine and Leitner: Hobey Baker Nominees

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team is enjoying a successful season. After collecting a school record of 24 wins in the division one era last season, the Mavericks look to be on pace to collect just as many victories this year. Since former Mav and St. Louis Blues captain David Backes left the program for the NHL in 2006, MSU has had trouble finding a player that can be among the top of the NCAA leader board in scoring. That trend has come to an end.

Junior forwards Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner are the Mavericks' top players this season, and are two players who are on everyone's radar. Both players have been scoring at a high rater, and each broke 100 career points this season. The pair have been playing so well in fact, that they have been nominated for the 2014 Hobey Baker Award, awarded annually to college hockey's top player. During the 2013 NCAA Men's Frozen Four, college hockey analyst Dave Starman named Leitner as one of his top three picks to win the Hobey Baker Award, alongside Miami University's Austin Czarnik and this year's favorite for the award, Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau.
Matt Leitner

Although Leitner got off to a slow start, scoring just three points in his first ten games, he has scored 33 points in his 20 games since to bring his total to 36 which paces him for second among scoring leaders in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and 23rd in the NCAA. The Los Alamitos, Calif. native's 27 assists are good for seventh in the NCAA and first in the WCHA by a wide margin. With 112 career points, Leitner has a good shot at breaking the 150 point barrier next season, placing him among the top scorers in Maverick history during the division one era. LaFontaine could also accomplish this feat.

Jean-Paul LaFontaine
Like Leitner, LaFontaine carried some expectations into this season. After an impressive freshman campaign where he was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team, J.P. stepped up his play even more and posted 35 points last season which was good for third on the team. This season, LaFontaine has posted a career high 20 goals to go along with 18 assists for a career high 38 points, which is good for 13th in the NCAA and first in the WCHA. After the Mavs had a weekend off last weekend, LaFontaine slipped from the top of NCAA power play goals, but still sits in second in the nation with 14 goals on the man advantage. LaFontaine credits his success on the power play to team chemistry.

"We've all been playing together a while and just find each other" he said, "we all played together (on the power play) most of last year."

With 101 career points in a Maverick uniform, LaFontaine could also land among the top career scorers in Maverick history, but him and Leitner still have some season left in them this year.

The focus is not so much on the Hobey Baker Award, as Gaudreau is practically running away with the award, after which he will likely sign with the Calgary Flames of the NHL who drafted him in 2011. The pair can wait till next year to worry about chasing college hockey's top honor, for now the focus is on making a consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

As things are now, the Mavericks are 19th in the NCAA pairwise rankings, with the top 16 making the NCAA tournament, but there is a loophole so to speak. Any team that wins their conference tournament gets an automatic bid to the NCAA regional tournament, so it is likely the Mavs will have to win the WCHA Final Five in Grand Rapids, Mich. next month to qualify, as conference rival Ferris State University is a lock for the top 16, currently tied for third in the pairwise rankings.

This weekend the Mavs travel to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. to take on a new conference opponent in Lake Superior State University. The Lakers hold a 16-15-1 record while going 12-12 in WCHA play which has them in a three way tie for fifth place in the conference. With the Mavs sitting in second place, four points behind Ferris State, both with four games remaining, it seems unlikely that MSU will catch the Bulldogs. However, should Ferris slip up and the Mavs win out, a tie would result in the Mavericks taking the regular season WCHA crown, given the head to head sweep over the Bulldogs.

After the two game series with LSSU, the Mavs return home for their final home series next weekend when the Michigan Tech University Huskies come to town to close out the regular season before the Mavs start postseason play.

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