Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Last year's champions meet again

The Mavericks celebrate their Final Five Championship
victory over Ferris State last season.
Last season, the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season title. They seemed like the obvious pick as they were the only team in the newly structured WCHA to have
made the NCAA Tournament the previous season. Heading into the season, it seemed to be MSU, then everyone else. That wasn't the case, though.

The Ferris State University Bulldogs were possibly the biggest surprise in college hockey last season. FSU cruised through the first half of the 2013-2014 season, going 17-3-3 into mid-January, including an impressive 12-0-2 in WCHA play to that point. The Bulldogs ranked as the no. 2 team in the country and were among the chatter as a possible NCAA title contender, but then a rivalry was formed.

"After all the games we played against them last season, it's safe to say we will have a rivalry that will last a long time." said senior captain Brett Stern.

FSU came to Mankato last January for perhaps their biggest test of the season. Running away with the WCHA regular season title, the Bulldogs were put into shock by the Mavericks.

The Mavericks, who were not ranked at the time, dismantled FSU in a 6-2 Friday night victory. It could have been viewed as a fluke or an off night for the Bulldogs, but MSU followed it up with a 4-3 victory the next night for a series sweep which put them in the race for the conference title.

Though Ferris State would go on to win the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA regular season champions, finishing one point ahead of MSU, it was the Mavericks who would have the last laugh.

These teams would meet once more during the season, with the stakes a bit higher.

The third and final meeting between these rivals was in Grand Rapids, Mich. at the WCHA Final Five tournament, where the Mavericks prevailed 4-1, giving them their first conference tournament championship and their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and a 3-0 record over the Bulldogs for the season.

Both teams would fall in the NCAA Tournament, falling short of the Frozen Four, but this weekend they meet again, this time the roles are reversed.

The Bulldogs were expected to be just as good this winter, and were even ranked as high as no. 4 in the country early on this year. But FSU has had a tough time getting back to where they were last season, and have compiled an 11-11-1 record so far this season, including 8-6 in WCHA play.

Though FSU doesn't seem to be the same team as they were a year ago when these two teams met, they cannot be overlooked. The Bulldogs carry one of the best goaltenders in the country, despite his record indicating otherwise.

C.J. Motte is a Hobey Baker Award candidate.
Senior goaltender C.J. Motte was a First-Team All-WCHA pick last season, and has posted an impressive .928 save percentage on the year to go along with a 1.97 save percentage. If the Bulldogs have any chance of taking down the Mavs, it starts with Motte, who has started all 23 games for FSU
this season.

On the other side, MSU comes into this weekend after being named the no. 1 team in the country on Monday, the highest ranking in program history. It's deja vu of sorts, but this time it's the Bulldogs who want to prove themselves.

The Mavericks have gotten off to their most consistent start in recent history, going 16-4-1 so far this season. MSU has notable wins over no. 5 Minnesota-Duluth, no. 8 Nebraska-Omaha, and no. 11 Michigan Tech, who were the no. 1 team in the country with a 12-0 record before the Mavs handed them a series sweep.

While the Mavs have been ranked among the top ten in the nation for much of the season, there is perhaps a bit more pressure now to remain at the top. They do have the tools to do so, however.

"We have to realize what got us to being no. 1 in the country and stick with our plan," said Stern. "Now that we've made it to no. 1 we set the bar for ourselves a little higher and need to work that much more day in and day out to stay in that spot."

Starting from the back end, Stephon Williams has been lights out in goal. Boasting a 12-2-1 record, Williams has managed a stingy 1.8 goals against average paired with a .917 save percentage, returning to his former glory of two seasons ago when he was named both WCHA Rookie of the Year and WCHA Goaltender of the Year.

Up front, the Mavericks have been getting offense everywhere. That's not an exaggeration, either.

MSU has nine players who have recorded ten or more points on the season, three of whom have already eclipsed the 20 point barrier. Senior Matt Leitner leads the way with 23 points on the season, and his 18 assists are the most in the WCHA. Behind him, junior forward Bryce Gervais has a WCHA best 13 goals on the year and 20 points to boot.

Senior captain Brett Stern.

These two aren't the only Mavs finding the back of the net, though. MSU also has nine players who have scored five or more goals, and have had four different players score their first career hat-tricks

this season by scoring three goals in a single game. Their depth is definitely their greatest asset.

"We have more than four lines of forwards and three sets of defense that I feel comfortable playing with in any game." said Stern.

Not only does MSU claim the top spot in the NCAA rankings, they claim the top spot in offensive production in the country, averaging 3.86 goals per game. With Motte being the bright spot on this Bulldog squad, it seems the Maverick offense may be too much for FSU this weekend.

"This weekend will be a battle," Stern said. "Going into someone else's barn and playing is tough, and going against a rival is even more tough."

The puck drops at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday night in this two game series at the Robert L. Ewigleben Ice Arena in Big Rapids, Mich. with four meaningful points on the line.

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