Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mavericks on pace for best season in program history

The Minnesota State University, Mankato men's hockey team had a good first half of the season heading into the new year. Arguably their best start to a season in the program's division I history.

The Mavericks are currently ranked no. 4 in the nation, after previously being ranked no. 2 back in December, the highest ranking program's history. At 16-4-1 and 5-0-1 in their last six games, MSU has an opportunity to reach a fairly impressive milestone for the third consecutive season.

Head coach Mike Hastings
During the 2012-2013 season, Mike Hastings' first season as head coach, the Mavs set a program record for wins in a season during the division I era with 24. Last season, in just his second season
behind the bench, Hastings' broke his own record when his team won 26 games en route to their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

With fourteen games remaining on the schedule for the Mavericks, not including the WCHA playoffs and NCAA tournament, the Mavs are certainly capable of reaching the 27 win mark, or possibly higher.

So let's take a look at how MSU got to this point and what remains,

Going 13-2-1 in WCHA play over the first half of the season, MSU sits atop the conference standings, with a comfortable lead over second place Michigan Tech, who has two games in hand. Last season, a tie against Tech in the last game of the season cost the Mavericks a share of the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA regular season champions. If they can keep on the track they're on now, the Mavs could come away with their first MacNaughton Cup in school history.

Matt Leitner leads MSU with 23 points.
Aside from being ranked the no. 4 team in the country, MSU is also the top ranked team in the NCAA pairwise rankings, the rankings which determine the seeding of teams for the NCAA Tournament.

So how have the Mavericks been so good this season? Simply put, depth.

While senior forward Matt Leitner is on pace to lead the team in scoring for a fourth consecutive season, MSU is getting scoring from nearly every player on the roster. Leitner's 18 assists this season lead the WCHA, while junior Bryce Gervais' 13 goals are the most in the conference. Up front, the
Mavs have been getting scoring from all four lines on any given night, which makes them tough to contain for opponents.

On the back end, defensemen Casey Nelson and Zach Palmquist are among the top scoring defenders in the country. Nelson, who saw limited playing time as a freshman, has now stepped into a much larger role and has posted five goals and 18 points in 21 games this season. Palmquist has 17 points of his own and often sees large minutes on the power play.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for this Maverick team is the play of their starting goaltender. Not surprising because he isn't capable, but surprising considering the way things went last season.

Junior goaltender Stephon Williams won WCHA Goaltender of the Year honors in 2013 to go along with the WCHA Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore last season, Williams not only lost the starting job to freshman Cole Huggins, but Huggins would go on to win the awards Williams won the season before.

This season, Huggins seemed poised to be the starting goaltender, until Williams stole the job back. Since then, Williams has gone 12-2-1 this season with an impressive 1.89 goals against average and a .917 save percentage with two shutouts.

Williams has gotten his fair share of help, though.

The Mavericks have the top offense in the country, averaging 3.86 goals per game. The fact that their scoring is dispersed throughout their deep roster makes this even more impressive.

Moving forward, the Mavericks have a tough schedule to round out the regular season. Coming up is a pair of weekend series' against last season's MacNaughton Cup winner Ferris State sandwiched around the North Star College Cup in St. Paul, where MSU will face off against the University of Minnesota, and then either Bemidji State or Minnesota-Duluth.

This weekend MSU heads to Big Rapids, Mich. for their first series against the Ferris State University Bulldogs. FSU was ranked as high as no. 2 last season but have had trouble getting back into the top 20 this season. It should be a good test for the Mavericks heading into the final stretch of the regular season.

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