Team of the Week: Minnesota State
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Minnesota State's reward for a hard-fought split with big brother Minnesota was a week off. Two weeks without a game can be equal parts positive and negative for a team. The Mavericks, as they have for most of the season, used this respite to their advantage.
MSU swept Minnesota-Duluth on the road last weekend. The wins kept them alive in the race for home-ice in the WCHA and earned the club CHN's Team of the Week.
The games with the Bulldogs both played out very differently. Friday, MSU needed three third-period goals to overcome a late deficit. Twenty-four hours later, the Mavericks dominated in a 5-1 win.
"We came back from winter break on Dec. 26, and we'd been working pretty much every day since then," MSU coach Mike Hastings said. "The break came at a good time for us just in terms of preparing for the rest of the season and getting some guys healthy."
Hastings said there were no major injuries to deal with. However, the usual rigors of a long season had left some players wounded. The negative of the break is the rust that can result in two points lost if a team doesn't have a strong start to a game. Through two periods on Friday, MSU trailed 2-1.
The scoreline could've but much worse if not for Stephon Williams' performance. The freshman goaltender made 19 saves in the first two periods to keep his team in a position to win. The final 20 minutes of the game made MSU's offense the story, but Williams was the reason the win was even a possibility.
"I think Stephon Williams is a big reason we were able to leave Duluth with two wins," Hastings said. "I think the games got away from us at times, and he played well enough to keep us within a goal on Friday and hold our lead on Saturday."
The Mavericks erupted for three goals in the third period Friday night to earn a 4-2 win. MSU had 22 shots in the period, compared to just 19 in the first and second periods combined.
"I didn't necessarily see anything when I walked out for the third period that said we were about to score three goals," Hastings said. "But we withstood a tough second period and that helped us into the third."
Saturday night looked drastically different, but another three-goal period — this time in the first — pushed the Mavericks to victory. Goals from Zach Lehrke, Teddy Blueger and Eriah Hayes staked MSU to a 3-0 lead after the first, which eventually turned into a 5-1 win.
The four-point weekend lifted MSU into a three-way tie for fifth place with Denver and Wisconsin. The top six teams in the WCHA earn home ice for the first round of the conference tournament. Each team has six games remaining, and the results of those will decide who travels where to kick off the postseason. The Mavericks host Michigan Tech this weekend before heading to Colorado College for a pair and ending the year with two home games against North Dakota.
"We played Wisconsin a few weeks ago and lost two overtime games," Hastings said. "Points get tougher and tougher to come by this time of year. If you look at those games, there was less than one minute left in overtime in each game, and we ended up with no points."
The tough competition aside, Hastings knows his team leadership and the emergerence of certain players will sustain his team down the stretch.
Hayes, Blueger — a 2nd Round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins — and Dylan Margonari came together last week and formed MSU's most productive line. In the weekend, the the group combined for seven goals and five assists, including Hayes' hat trick in Saturday's win.
Hayes' 16 goals on the season are tied for seventh nationally. The senior is equally important for the club off the ice. He, along with senior defenseman Tyler Elbrecht, have formed a strong leadership duo for the club.
"Every bit of success we've had this season, (Hayes) has been in the middle of it," Hastings said. "He impacts a game, not only with his stick, but with his size. He's a real self-motivating player.
"When I took the job, I sat down with all of the players. One of the questions I asked them was about leadership and choosing a leader. Every single one of them mentioned Eriah Hayes and Tyler Elbrecht."
With six critical conference games remaining, Hayes and Elbrecht will need to lead the team in moving past last weekend's sweep quickly.