Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The road to Philly

Before last March, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team had only made one NCAA tournament appearance since their move to division one in the 1996-1997 season. Last weekend the Mavericks earned their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament by winning the WCHA Final Five Tournament with a 4-1 victory over no. 1 seeded Ferris State University.

While FSU was a lock for the NCAA tournament regardless of last weekend’s result at the Final Five, the Mavs were a bubble team, and winning the tournament wiped away all uncertainty.

Though making the tournament for the second straight year is huge for the program, the excitement of just getting there isn’t enough anymore. In last year’s NCAA tournament, MSU received a no. 4 seed in the Midwest regional and faced off against the no. 1 seeded University of Miami-Ohio, where the Redhawks ended the Mavericks’ season with a 4-0 victory. While last year there weren’t high expectations for MSU, and it came as a surprise to most that they were one of the final 16 teams standing when the NCAA tournament field was selected, this season carried different expectations.

“Obviously last year we weren’t happy with the way things turned out at the tournament,” said sophomore forward Bryce Gervais, “but we were happy to be there.”

After last season’s success, the Mavs became a team expected to return to the NCAA tournament, and with most of the current roster having a year of tournament experience under their belts, the outlook has changed.

“This year I feel like we are happy to be headed back to the tournament, but we are not satisfied with just making it.” said Gervais. “We want to win.”
Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College will be
the most closely watched player in Worcester

For a program that found itself among the bottom half of the WCHA standings on an annual basis for years, the recent success has put the Mavericks on the map as a contender in college hockey, and certainly helps the recruiting process.  Just two seasons ago, MSU finished 12-24-2 and in 11th place of the then 12 team WCHA. After that season, Troy Jutting was given the boot as head coach and Mike Hastings was hired as the new bench boss. Under Hastings’ leadership the Mavericks are two for two in NCAA tournament appearances and have garnered a record of 50-27-4. Now, players, coaches, and fans like the direction the program is heading in.

“It’s huge,” said Gervais, “we want to be the best, and making the tournament proves that we are making strides and getting better as a program.”

So now that MSU has qualified for another NCAA tournament, what lies ahead for the Mavericks?

Finishing the conference playoff weekend at no. 10 in the NCAA, the Mavs received a no. 3 seed and are being sent to the Northeast regional tournament in Worcester, Mass to play at the DCU Center, home of the AHL Worcester Sharks, where last year’s Maverick captain Eriah Hayes now plays. With no. 1 seeded Boston College, no. 2 seeded University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and no. 4 seeded Denver University. While a former WCHA member in Denver appears to be the only familiar opponent, UMass-Lowell and MSU do have a bit of history between the programs.

In seven meetings between the two teams, the Riverhawks hold a 4-3 edge in wins over the Mavericks, though three of those contests were at the Division II level. In recent history, the teams are 2-2 after MSU swept the Riverhawks in Lowell, Mass. in 2010, with UMass getting revenge by sweeping the Mavs in Mankato in 2011.

Cole Huggins will have be be stellar between the
pipes for the Mavs to advance
This season, the Riverhawks compiled a 25-10-4 record on their way to the Hockey East conference title. The no. 5 team in the nation, UMass doesn’t have any elite scorers, but have the no. 1 ranked defense in the country.

“UMass is a very defensive team and aren’t going to give up much.” said Gervais. “When we get our chances we’re going to have to capitalize.”

Led by the no. 1 goaltender in the country, sophomore goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been the anchor for the Riverhawks. Hellebuyck holds an NCAA best .943 save percentage and a stingy 1.73 goals against average, which also ranks first in the nation. Widely regarded as the biggest snub for the Hobey Baker award for college hockey’s best player, Hellebuyck has a deep lineup playing in front of him.
All roads from here lead to Philadelphia

UMass has 15 players on their roster with ten or more points on the season, led by senior forward Joe Pendenza who has 29, and sophomore Adam Chapie, whose 23 points include five game winning goals.

To keep up, MSU is going to have to match that depth.

“I feel like all four of our lines can score, which takes pressure off our top guys like Johnny McInnis, Leitner, Jean-Paul (LaFontaine), and Lehrke.” said Gervais. “We are going to need all four lines and our defensive group to keep playing the way they’ve been playing for us to be successful.”

The Mavericks on the other hand carry plenty of offensive firepower coming into the NCAA tournament. Of the 16 teams remaining, MSU holds the second best power play in the field, with a 25.26 success rate, just .27 behind St. Cloud State.

The no. 11 team in the nation, MSU is led by some veteran forwards, an up and coming goal scorer, and arguable the best freshman goaltender in the NCAA. Junior forward Matt Leitner leads the way with 44 points and is a catalyst on the power play unit. Then there’s Jean-Paul LaFontaine, who has posted career highs of 20 goals and 20 assists, and his 14 power play goals are the most of any player still playing. Just behind him is senior captain Johnny McInnis, who has buried 21 goals, including six game winners, to go along with 16 assists.

Gervais has been on a scoring streak as of late
Peaking at the right time is Gervais. Known earlier in the season as a top penalty killer and shot blocker for the Mavericks, Gervais has posted 18 points in his last 15 games, 11 of which are goals. But the biggest asset for MSU is between the pipes.

Freshman goaltender Cole Huggins seemingly came out of nowhere to take the starting position away from last year’s WCHA Goaltender of the Year Stephon Williams. The no. 4 goaltender in the NCAA and no. 2 in shutouts, Huggins has posted gaudy numbers himself with a goals against average if 1.91 and a .924 save percentage. The rookie netminder  is coming off an outstanding weekend at the Final Five, where he was named the tournament MVP.

MSU faces off against the Riverhawks on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN 3, with either Denver or BC looming in the championship game for the chance to advance to the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia. As the no. 3 seed in the regional, the Mavs are an underdog to make it out of Worcester this weekend, but it really is a tossup as the separation between the teams is little to nonexistent.

“Everyone still playing at this time of the year is a good hockey club.” Gervais said.

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