Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mavericks take down no. 1

A week ago, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team was preparing to take on the top ranked team in all of Division I men’s hockey. Michigan Tech University was billed as the top team last Monday after starting the season 10-0-0, the best start in the program’s 94 year history.

With an 8-0-0 start in conference play, it appeared that this year’s Michigan Tech team could be last year’s Ferris State; leading the WCHA with all other teams chasing them. The Mavericks had other plans, though.

The Mavericks celebrate J.P. LaFontaine's Saturday night goal.
Last season, MSU was chasing Ferris State in the WCHA standings for much of the season, until a late season sweep over FSU put the Mavericks in position to win a share of the regular season league title, which they fell one point short of. This past weekend, the Mavs showed that they aren’t waiting for a late season push to put themselves at the top of the league, they want to make that push now.

On Friday night, the no. 9 ranked Mavericks went into the MacInnes Student Ice Center in Houghton, Mich. and handed the Huskies their first loss of 2014-2015 with a 2-1 victory in a tight defensive game.

After a scoreless first period, Alex Petan got the Huskies on the board first when he buried a rebound past Maverick goaltender Stephon Williams. Williams made the initial save on the rush, but the rebound gave Petan a mostly open net to deposit his shot into. From there, over half of the game went without a goal until just past the midpoint of the third period.

At 11:58 of the third period, Brett Stern scored his second goal of the season to knot the game at one apiece on a skilled pass by junior Teddy Blueger. Down low, Blueger saw Stern crashing towards the net and fed him a pass that Stern fired past Jamie Phillips to break the seal for the Mavs.

Then just 24 seconds later, junior forward Dylan Margonari gave MSU the lead on a bouncing puck that he swatted in past Phillips. The play would be reviewed, but the goal would stand as the game winner.

Williams would collect 30 saves in the win, in some of the best hockey he has played since his freshman season where he was awarded WCHA Goaltender of the Year.

“I knew I had to come in and be better than their goalie,” Williams said. “He’s been tremendous coming into this weekend. But I also knew coming in that our (defensive) corps and our forwards with their pressure were going to be a tremendous help. They keep shots to the outside and clear dangerous pucks.”

Stern, a senior captain for the Mavericks, admitted that it’s nice to beat the top ranked team, but it doesn’t guarantee success. "It's just another game,” said Stern. “Every weekend is going to be tough."

Saturday night, the Mavericks were going for the sweep, while Tech was trying to salvage a series split. Generally, a split isn’t the goal for a weekend series, but in the case of two teams ranked among the top ten in the country, a split wouldn’t have hurt either the Huskies or the Mavericks too much. A sweep, however, could make a significant difference.

Once again it was the Huskies who got on the board first at home when Petan tallied his second goal of the weekend on a one-timer in front of Williams to give MTU the 1-0 lead early in the second period.

Just under two minutes later, the Mavs would tie things up. Jordan Nelson scored his second of the season in a scrum near the goal. With the puck loose, Nelson kicked the puck to his stick and stuffed the puck in. After review, the goal stood and the game was tied at one apiece.

Heading into the third period with the game tied, senior Matt Leitner gave MSU the lead on an odd power play goal. Leitner attempted to throw a shot on goal, but the shot was deflected by a Huskies defenseman and the change-up fooled Phillips for a 2-1 Maverick lead.

Then senior Jean-Paul LaFontaine extended the lead when he collected a loose puck behind the net and wrapped it around to the far side and tucked it into the Huskies’ net for a 3-1 lead halfway through the third period.

Tech would score a late power play goal to close the gap at 3-2, but Williams stood tall in goal and gave MSU the sweep over the top ranked team in the country.

This was a huge weekend for the Mavericks as the first time in the program’s Division I history where they swept the no. 1 ranked team in the nation. There are a few things that can be taken away from this weekend.

It appears as if junior goaltender Stephon Williams
has gained his confidence again, taking over the
starting goaltending position for MSU.
While last season Stephon Williams struggled early on and ultimately lost the starting job to now sophomore Cole Huggins, he seems to have found his footing once again. Williams holds a 9-1-0 record and a gaudy 1.85 goals against average to go along with a respectable .915 save percentage. Though he hasn’t been greatly tested this year until this past weekend, that record and only allowing three goals in two games against the nation’s top team is a good sign for the Mavericks.

Another thing to take away from this weekend is the upperclassmen leadership. Leitner and LaFontaine lit up the scoreboard in the WCHA last season, but have been relatively quiet in the goal column so far this season. Some may have thought they were in a slump, but both were still doling out assists on a regular basis. Saturday night, the pair each scored a goal in securing a sweep over Tech, and assisted on each other’s goals.

“Not many teams do well in a season without upper-class leadership,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “That’s what we needed, and we got that this weekend.”

The last thing to take away from this weekend sweep is what it means for the Maverick team as a whole. While the college hockey regular season is roughly only one-third complete, MSU is in good position if they can keep winning. After the sweep, the Mavericks now sit in first place in the NCAA pairwise rankings. These rankings are based on the team’s record and strength of schedule, and they are the rankings used to seed teams for the NCAA tournament.

While it’s far too early to get overly excited about this, it should be recognized that it puts the Mavs in good position for the rest of the season. In the WCHA, MSU is in second place, two points behind Tech, but with two games in hand. Also, the sweep over Tech puts MSU in position to remain among the top 16 in the pairwise rankings for the season if they continue to play well.

This weekend, the Mavericks will again head to Michigan, this time to face off against Lake Superior State University. Though the Lakers lost their first nine games of the season, they have won three of their last five. LSSU will look to continue improving their record, while the Mavs will look for a sweep to extend their winning streak to six games.

The puck drops at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Taffy Abel Arena in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with a 6:00 p.m. start on Saturday night.

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