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.

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