Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mavericks in second straight WCHA Final Five

Bryce Gervais has scored 10 goals in his last 13 games
The Minnesota State University, Mankato Mavericks have done it again. The Mavs men’s hockey team returns to the WCHA Final Five for a second straight year and the first back to back appearance in program history. While the Mavs were expected to be at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. next weekend for the tournament, the road there wasn’t an easy one.

The Mavericks had the MacNaughton Cup within reach two weekends ago after a Friday night win over Michigan Tech, but after Tech held the Mavs to a 1-1 tie on Saturday, MSU slipped to second in the WCHA league standings, with Ferris State taking the regular season title and the no. 1 seed for the WCHA playoffs. Still, the Mavs performed well enough to earn the no. 2 seed, and they also earned home ice for the first round of playoff hockey for the second consecutive season.

The Northern Michigan University Wildcats came to town this past weekend hoping to extend their season into the Final Five, but MSU had different plans. In a best of three game series, the Mavericks got out to a 3-0 lead in Friday night’s game with a goal by junior forward Matt Leitner, and a pair of power play goals coming from the sticks of sophomore Bryce Gervais and freshman Sean Flanagan. NMU answered back and scored two of their own to make Maverick fans a little nervous, but freshman goaltender Cole Huggins was able to protect his team’s lead and hold on for a 3-2 win.

With the first victory of the series, the Mavericks had to win Saturday night to prevent a Sunday night rubber match that could have ended either team’s season.

Game two of the series on Saturday night saw the Wildcats fight to keep their season going, and they didn’t give the Mavericks a lead until the game was over. After NMU took a lead at the midpoint of the first period, the Mavericks had trouble finding the back of the net. That was until Leitner scored a beautiful breakaway goal with only .5 seconds remaining in the period. Leitner split the Wildcat defenders, came in all alone on NMU goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom, and lifted a backhand shot over Dahlstrom’s shoulder for a buzzer beating, game tying goal.

The late goal seemed to carry some momentum into the second period as the Mavs continued to pepper shots on Dahlstrom, but the Wildcats answered first in the second period with a goal from Ryan Kesti on a shot that Huggins never saw. But the Mavericks, who hold the third best power play unit in the NCAA, were able to knot the game again when senior captain Johnny McInnis tallid a power play goal late in the second period.

Again heading to the locker room having tied the game, both teams came out firing in the third. For the Mavericks, the third period was the Bryce Gervais show. The Wildcats twice scored power play goals in the third period to take a one goal lead, but each time Gervais answered back to tie the game again. Gervais’ second goal of the game came on the power play with under five minutes left in regulation, sending the game into overtime.

In overtime, it was a freshman who kept the party going for the Mavericks. After a Zach Palmquist blast from the point that got away from Dahlstrom, freshman Zach Stepan collected the loose puck behind the net and jammed it in the net for the game winning goal, extending the Mavericks’ season for at least another week.

Maverick head coach Mike Hastings expressed his excitement after the game.

“I learned a lot about my guys tonight,” Hastings said, “That’s as hard fought of a win as we’ve had all season, every time they made a push we answered the bell.”

Only two wins this weekend separate the Mavericks from the Broadmoor Trophy as the WCHA Final Five champions. The Mavs play Bowling Green on Friday, who they went 2-2 against this season, including three overtime games. If the Mavericks can take down the Falcons, they advance to the championship game on Saturday to face the winner of Ferris State or Alaska-Anchorage. Heading into the tournament, the Mavericks feel confident.

“We don’t play down much and when we did we were able to come back” Stepan said. “We learned tonight that is doesn’t matter if we are down or up, we’ll be able to win the hockey game.”

Coach Hastings also credited the win to the emergence of young players, specifically Gervais.

“Bryce Gervais has just taken his game to a new level” said Hastings.

After a three goal weekend by Gervais, he now has scored 15 goals this season, and ten in his last 13 games. A natural goal scorer who led the British Columbia Hockey League in goals just two seasons ago, it seems he may be starting to breakout at the college level. As for any change in his game that’s helped him raise his game, he says it’s mental.

“My mental preparation was lacking for a while,” Gervais said, “now I’m just more focused.”

The Mavs are going to need that focus to get them to the NCAA tournament, as right now they may not be a shoe-in. MSU sits 12th in the NCAA pairwise rankings, with the top 16 teams making the NCAA tournament. Right now, it looks as if the Mavs will likely make their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, but there are no gaurentees. If any teams below the top 16 wins their conference tournament, they push out the bottom of the top 16. If the Mavericks are able to win the WCHA Final Five this weekend, they receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and likely a more favorable seed.

“This weekend showed us nothing is going to come easy” Gervais said, “we’re going to have to work just as hard up at Van Andel.”

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