A New Leitner
After Slow Start, Minnesota State Star Heats Up
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
Stationed at the bottom of the circle, Matt Leitner watched Bryce Gervais dig for the puck along the boards behind the net. Once Gervais worked it free to Zach Lehrke, Lehrke set Leitner up for the one-timer.
Leitner’s shot whizzed over C.J. Motte’s shoulder and, just like that, Minnesota State had a 1-0 lead over No. 2 Ferris State less than four minutes into the opening game of their weekend series.
“I don’t think anybody was going to stop it,” Mavericks captain Johnny McInnis said. “Matty really got us going on Friday night. He set the tone for the weekend.”
Leitner didn’t just set the tone early. In MSU’s sweep of Ferris State last weekend, he totaled a team-high five points (two goals, three assists) and helped run a power play that proved to be a difference maker in the set, capitalizing on five of its 11 opportunities as the Bulldogs were held scoreless on seven chances of their own.
“It’s easier to see his offensive talents because, at the end of the game, those get tallied up: it says how many goals and assists you have,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. “His overall play, from the faceoffs to the responsibility he showed from our red line back to our goal line and the level he was defending, was as complete a weekend he’s had this year.”
This season, however, didn't start out that way.
Expectations were high for Leitner this season. After finishing tied for ninth in the nation in scoring as a sophomore with 17 goals and 30 assists, he was tabbed as the WCHA Preseason Player of the Year. But he started slow, like his team, notching just four assists in his first nine games. He also watched from the stands for the first time in his collegiate career, missing two games at Bemidji State in early November with a back injury.
“I don’t think I was sharp early,” Leitner said. “There’s no excuse; I should have been better. It just seemed like it took me a while to get in the flow of the season.”
It took Leitner until his 10th game to net his first goal. While he was held off the scoresheet in his next game, he then embarked on a seven-game point streak from Nov. 30 to Jan. 4, notching four goals and seven assists over that span.
“Matty expects a lot of himself and we, as a team, didn’t get off to a great start,” McInnis said. “It’s difficult for guys to handle sometimes, and Matty did a good job of not focusing on, ‘I’m supposed to do this.’ He just stayed focused and went through the struggle that he was going through, and he’s been better after learning to trust his skills.”
Now, Leitner sits in second on his team, and seventh in the WCHA, with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 22 games. He has also helped spark a power play that was converting on less than 10 percent of its chances at the beginning of the year, posting 12 points (three goals, nine assists) with the man advantage since Nov. 22.
But Leitner is the first to admit that he hasn’t played at the level he knows that he’s capable for the majority of the year.
“Almost all the way up to this past weekend, I didn’t feel 100 percent in my abilities and how I should be playing,” Leitner said. “Hopefully, I keep it going for the rest of the year.”
While league points aren’t on the line this weekend, the Mavericks have the chance to face some intrastate rivals in the inaugural North Star College Cup in St. Paul, Minn. MSU takes on Minnesota-Duluth Friday and will play either Minnesota or St. Cloud State Saturday. For a team poised just two points outside of first place in the WCHA, and coming off a big weekend sweep, a strong showing in this tournament should help it continue to advance in the Pairwise.
“It’s been a roller coaster year,” Leitner said. “Now, it seems like we’re out of the dark days and we’re in the hunt for the WCHA and for the NCAA tournament. There are no excuses anymore. We’re into the part of the season where hockey players love to be. It’s why you play the game.”
And the Mavericks will be counting on Leitner to continue his resurgence as they hunt for hockey glory.
“He’s important to us every day,” Hastings said. “If you look at minutes that are played, night in and night out, he’s going to have an opportunity to play a significant part. He kills penalties, he’s on our power play, and he plays a top six role up front. Anybody in that situation is going to have an opportunity to impact the game.”