Sunday, April 6, 2014

Another great season for the Mavericks

All good things must come to an end. The saying doesn’t ring more true for the Minnesota State University, Mankato Maverick hockey team. The Mavs fell to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks 2-1 in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal game two weekends ago, ending their season. While it was a tough pill to swallow, the Mavericks had plenty of success this season and plenty to be proud of.

“We have no regrets.” said Maverick head coach Mike Hastings. “We left it all out there.”

Hastings during the NCAA tournament press
In his second season as bench boss for MSU, Hastings brought a program that used to set their sights on a .500 season to a program that is a contender for the Frozen Four and a National Championship. Going 26-14-1 this year, MSU set a school record for wins in the Division I era, passing last season’s record of 24.
Not only that, but the Mavs also finished 2nd in the WCHA regular season standings, the highest finish in the program’s 15 years in the conference. Though they fell short of the Frozen Four, the season once again brought the Mavericks to national recognition as a top program in college hockey.

After a slow start going 4-7 through the first 11 games, MSU went on a seven game winning streak through December setting up for a second half of the season push for the NCAA tournament. When first place in the WCHA seemed out of place in January, the Mavs took down the no. 2 team in the country at the time, Ferris State University. Hastings’ Mavericks swept FSU in a two game series, which was the first implication that last year’s success wasn’t a fluke, this team is a contender.

Two weeks after the sweep of Ferris, MSU went on a 13 game unbeaten streak where they went 12-0-1 to finish out the regular season and the WCHA Final Five tournament. Although the Mavs finished second behind Ferris in the WCHA regular season, they went on to sweep Northern Michigan in the first round of the WCHA playoffs before beating Bowling Green State on their way to face off against Ferris in their first Final Five title game.

In the Final Five championship game in Grand Rapids, Mich. the Mavs defeated Ferris 4-1, winning the Broadmoor Trophy for the first time in program history. With the conference tournament title in hand, the Mavericks earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, only their third appearance to the NCAA tournament, but the second in as many years.

While this year’s team was expected to have a great year and make the NCAA tournament, last year’s team set the stage for this program on the rise.

“The aspect of experience teaches you quite a bit.” said Hastings. “A year ago we had a real good regular season and won our first playoff series, but the loss to Wisconsin in the Final Five carried over to the NCAA tournament against [Miami-Ohio].”

After the slow start to the season, the team who was selected as the preseason WCHA champions started picking up their play thanks to players stepping up and playing big.

Junior forward Jean-Paul LaFontaine led the WCHA in scoring for much of the season, finishing with 20 goals and 20 assists for 40 points, which all were career highs. LaFontaine also led the country in power play goals for a good stretch of the season, and finished second in the NCAA with 14 goals on the man advantage. Additionally, he was named All-WCHA Second Team.

Matt Leitner and Cole Huggins after the NCAA regional
loss to UMass-Lowell
Another junior who played a large role in the Mavericks’ success was forward Matt Leitner. Leitner led the team a year ago with 47 points and once again led the team this season, posting a team high 33 assists and 45 points, which landed him at 14th in the nation in points. Leitner was one of three players that were picked
as a preseason favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player. He and LaFontaine were both nominees for the award, but failed to make it into the top ten finalists. Leitner was also named All-WCHA First Team.

Aside from the junior duo, there were also a couple of seniors that added some firepower to the Maverick lineup.

Senior forward Zach Lehrke had retired from hockey before the season due to a muscle condition, but decided to finish out his senior season and joined the team after the first ten games. With Lehrke’s return, the power play went from a nine percent success rate to 25.25 percent which was fourth best in the NCAA. He also finished with a career high 28 points in his 31 games.

Johnny McInnis also carried a big load up front for the Mavs. The senior captain from Boston, Mass. came to MSU and saw limited ice time in his first two seasons as a Maverick. When former coach Troy Jutting was replaced by Hastings, McInnis’ game changed. His junior year, McInnis had somewhat of a breakout season, scoring 13 goals, five of which were game winners. In his final season at MSU, the captain posted career highs of 21 goals and 38 points, and six more game winning goals, leaving him with 14 in his collegiate career. McInnis and Lehkre both were named to the All-WCHA Third Team.

Coach Hastings knows the kind of impact McInnis had on his team.

“It’s going to sting not having him in the locker room.” Said Hastings. “If we continue to bring in people and players like Johnny McInnis we’ll be successful. He’s done some heavy lifting for our coaching staff and he’s going to have the opportunity to play hockey for a while.”

Senior Johnny McInnis waiting for a pass
Indeed he will. McInnis signed a tryout contract with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League, the minor league affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. He will have the opportunity to join fellow
Maverick alumni Eriah Hayes, Tyler Pitlick, Travis Morin, and Ben Youds, who all currently play for AHL teams.

While the loss of Lehrke and McInnis hurt, the Mavs’ future is still bright.

After winning their first Final Five title and making their second NCAA tournament appearance in a row, MSU is now a much more appealing program to prospective hockey players. As the no. 11 team in the NCAA, Mankato is now a destination for hockey players who want a chance at playing in the NCAA tournament, and the attitude in the locker room is that they want more.

“This year was a bit different for us.” said Hastings. “The guys weren’t content with just having some success.”

The freshman class next season appears to be a pretty deep class of recruits, but the returning Mavs will provide an already scary lineup to face.

Leitner and LaFontaine lead the way for the returners, but the emergence of young stars give the lineup even more depth.

Sophomore Bryce Gervais had a breakout season, finishing third on the team with 16 goals. Gervais was essential down the playoff stretch, posting 18 points in the final 16 games of the season while also being a top penalty killer. At the WCHA Final Five tournament, Gervais was named to the All-Tournament team.

While the Mavs seem set up front, on the backend they are also in good shape. On the blue line, junior Zach Palmquist anchors the defensive core. An All-WCHA First Team player, Palmquist led all Maverick defenseman with 23 points. He and All-WCHA Rookie Team defenseman Sean Flanagan will likely log the majority of minutes on the blue line next season. Behind them was another all-star goaltender.

Huggins during the NCAA tournament
 After sophomore Stephon Williams was named the WCHA Goaltending Champion and WCHA Rookie of the Year last season, it appeared the Mavs goalie situation was set. But after a shaky start to his sophomore season, freshman Cole Huggins took over between the pipes. The Centennial, Colo. native was great in net
and racked up honors of his own. Huggins set a school record for single season shutouts with six, and finished as the no. 2 goaltender in the NCAA behind UMass-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck. Huggins was also named this year’s WCHA Goaltending Champion and All-WCHA Second Team. Coming back for next season, he will be the backbone of this Maverick team.

“It’s hard to step in as a freshman and do what he’s done.” said freshman forward Zach Stepan. “It helps us knowing he’s back there to back us up and he’s the biggest reason we’ve come to where we’ve come.”

With two years of NCAA tournament experience under their belts, the Mavericks are now a team on everyone’s radar and a team that can contend for a National Championship in the coming years.

“I know the Frozen Four is in Boston next year, and with the firepower and goaltending coming back along with our coach, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t make it.” said McInnis.

Over the past two years the Maverick program has been building the foundation for a prominent program. While the players put in the work and get the job done, it’s clear that the change came when Hastings was hired as coach.

“He came in here with a plan and made us believe we were a good hockey team from day one.” said McInnis. “He told us we were going to go to places we’ve never been and really made us believe in ourselves.”

Though MSU fell short in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season, they accomplished plenty to build on for the future. With their first back to back trip to the NCAA tournament, first WCHA Final Five championship, and a record 26 wins, the Mavericks will once again rebound and be a preseason favorite by next fall.

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