Minnesota State Not Satisfied with Final Five Berth
by Ryan Lund/CHN Reporter
MANKATO, Minn. Last March, following a fourth consecutive season spent laboring near the bottom of the WCHA, Minnesota State headedto overtime with the second-seeded Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs.
It was a season of one-goal losses, eight total, punctuated by the biggest one-goal loss of all, as then-UMD-junior Mike Seidel ended the Mavericks’ season with an overtime tally that sent MSU home empty-handed once again.
And while the loss, and the season that it encapsulated, triggered an offseason full of change in Mankato, it paved the way for a season of surprises and lofty new goals.
From a head coaching change at a time when the ice at Verizon Wireless Civic Center had yet to be installed, to a surprising run to the WCHA Final Five, the new-look Mavericks are in the business of surprising people.
“We talked about goals at the beginning of the year,” said leading scorer Matt Leitner. “[Our] first goal was to get home ice, the second goal was to get to the Final Five.”
After being picked to finish 10th in the conference in the annual WCHA Preseason Media Poll, the Mavericks followed a slow start to the regular season with an impressive 11-1 run from late November to early January, paving the way for the team’s first home playoff series since 2008, and its first Final Five berth since 2003.
Crucially, the run also included a 6-0-2 mark against non-conference competition, second only to regular season champion Minnesota, giving plenty of fuel to MSU’s NCAA tournament aspirations.
The road to turning those aspirations into a reality however, ran through an opponent that carries a special significance to these Mavericks: Nebraska-Omaha.
The scene at center ice Sunday was one of conflicted emotions, and further surprises, as a group of Mankato seniors paused for an unusual reunion with Omaha assistant, and former MSU head coach Troy Jutting, following the conclusion of their first round WCHA playoff series.
Current MSU coach Mike Hastings, a former Omaha assistant himself, was hired to relieve the departing Jutting, who spent more than a decade at the helm, overseeing Mankato’s emergence as a Division I program, including its transition to the WCHA.
Even as Mankato’s upperclassmen shared a long handshake with their former coach, the victory was significant for their current coach as well, as Hastings faced a team that he helped to build just a season ago.
“I have a lot of respect for (UNO coach Dean Blais), for the entire administration there and the guys in that locker room,” he said.
“I’m happy for my guys, but I don’t take any pleasure in having that happen to those guys.”
But while a showdown with his former team and Blais may have given Hastings’ postgame comments an emotional tone, the action on the ice was business as usual for Mankato.
The Mavericks downed their soon to be ex-rivals in three games, playing the Red Mavs to a razor-thin 4-3 overtime victory on Friday night, before falling in a similarly close 2-1 loss on Saturday.
Sunday night however, saw a return to form for MSU, as the hometown Mavericks downed UNO, 3-1, in a deceptively lopsided tilt.
Any thoughts of Game 3 fatigue were put to rest in the first period, as reigning WCHA goaltending champion Stephon Williams went to work early with a series of timely saves, paving the way for an at times dominant performance from the MSU offense.
Williams will face his most daunting task on Thursday, as the Mavericks square off against the team that kicked off their surprising rise: Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s Kohl Center was the site of Williams and the Mavericks’ coming out party in late November. The recently named WCHA Rookie of the Year backstopped Mankato to a pair of 4-2 victories in the notoriously hostile arena.
While a rematch in Mankato a few months later left the season series between the conference foes knotted at two, this weekend’s meeting in the Final Five will feature a pair of squads facing vastly different scenarios.
The Mavericks enter the Final Five a virtual lock to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade, and begin the final phase of the WCHA postseason ranked no. 9 in the Pairwise.
A win over the Badgers would seemingly ensure MSU a spot on selection Sunday, but the team will need to solve a stingy Wisconsin defense that has allowed an average of just 2.05 goals per game this season — good enough for fourth in the nation — to erase any doubt.
For its part, Wisconsin will need to come out on top Thursday afternoon to keep its tournament hopes alive, a cause that should give the Badgers’ 36th ranked offense some extra incentive in solving the Mavericks and their stingy young netminder.
It’s been a long road for Minnesota State, a long road from the cellar all the way to the upper ranks of a league set to undergo a massive makeover.
But as the old WCHA begins to wind down, Mike Hastings and the Mavericks are looking to continue their winning ways.
According to sophomore Max Gaede, whose lone goal this season, the series clincher in Sunday night’s decisive showdown, proved to be one of the most important, MSU isn’t done surprising people.
“I’m just glad I wasn’t a minus,” Gaede said, laughing off his landmark tally, before quickly adopting a much more serious tone.
“We’re not happy about going to St. Paul because it’s St. Paul,” he said. “We’re happy because we’re getting into the next step, into the next part of the season.
“We’re not stopping there,” he said. “As long as we play as a family, four lines deep, constantly playing hard, [with] everyone on the same page, there’s not a team in the country that can beat us.”