Monday, March 3, 2014

Rise to the top



Just a couple of months ago, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team seemed paced for second place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association behind the Ferris State University Bulldogs. Before the two teams faced off in January, the Bulldogs seemed to be cruising through conference play, six points ahead of the Mavericks, and first place seemed out of reach for MSU. After Alaska-Fairbanks pulled off a sweep over Ferris last weekend, the Mavericks are now tied for first place in the WCHA, holding the tie breaker over the Bulldogs after sweeping them at home in that January series.

After a sweep over Lake Superior State University last weekend that included 5-0 and 4-3 victories, the Mavericks finally closed the gap. With 38 points in WCHA play, the Mavs and the Bulldogs sit in first place, far enough ahead of the rest of the conference where neither team will slip below second place. Two games remain on each team's schedule, with the Mavericks playing at home this weekend against long time WCHA opponent Michigan Tech, while Ferris State will play Lake Superior State University this weekend to close out the regular season.
the WCHA MacNaughton Cup
So what's on the line this weekend? If the Mavs earn equal or more points this weekend than Ferris does in their series with LSSU, they will earn their first ever MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the regular season champion of the WCHA. Last year's winners were St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota. Although it would also be Ferris State's first MacNaughton Cup, they are a first year member of the WCHA, while the Mavs have been chasing the regular season crown for the past fourteen seasons. This weekend also has carries some pressure for the postseason.
While the Mavericks have already clinched home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, earning the no. 1 seed would give them a more favorable matchup to advance to the WCHA Final Five tournament later this month. As they are now, the Mavs are ranked no. 17 in the NCAA pairwise rankings, with the top 16 going to the NCAA tournament. Although a sweep over Michigan Tech this weekend could launch them into the top 16, MSU cannot rely on the pairwise to make the NCAA tournament.
Teams that win their conference tournament earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, so it's possible for the lower ranked teams in the top 16 to be pushed out by unranked teams winning their conference tournament. The Mavericks may have to win the WCHA Final Five to make their second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Zach Lehrke is one of the Mavs' top PP players
How will the Mavs get there? With a record of 21-13, the Mavericks are led by the third best power play unit in the country, and the Mavericks have been outstanding with the man advantage. Seniors Zach Lehrke and Johnny McInnis, along with juniors Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner, see the
majority of minutes on the power play, and are a constant threat to score when playing a man up. LaFontaine stands second, and McInnis fifth in power play goals scored in the NCAA, with both players being among the top ten in the nation in overall goals scored. Matt Leitner has also gained some national attention, standing sixth in the nation in assists with 29.
Though the Mavericks have been one of the best at scoring with the extra man, they have also been one of the best at killing off opposing power plays. MSU's penalty kill is fifth in the nation, and has produced four shorthanded goals, with two coming off the stick of sophomore Bryce Gervais. While special teams have been favorable for these Mavs, the back end has been the biggest surprise for MSU this season.

Huggins with a save against Minnesota
Freshman Cole Huggins came in expected to play backup to last year's WCHA Goaltender of the Year, sophomore Stephon Williams. Huggins took over the starting role in November, and has been stellar ever since. In overall goaltending statistics, he is the tenth ranked netminder in the country, and the only WCHA goalie in the top 15, leaving it likely that he could be named this year's conference goaltending champion. His four shutouts this season have him at fourth in the nation, and he has been a pleasant surprise for the Mavs this season after Williams has struggled to find his game.

The next stop for the Mavs on the road to the NCAA tournament is a series with Michigan Tech this weekend. The Huskies come to town for a two game series at the Verizon Wireless center in downtown Mankato, where MSU is 15-1 this season. Tech is 14-16-6 this season, but cannot be taken lightly as they have handed Ferris State one of their six WCHA losses.

The puck drops Friday at 7:37 p.m. with an earlier 7:07 p.m. start for Saturday night's WCHA regular season finale at VWC.

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