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.

No comments:

Post a Comment