Team of the Week: Minnesota State
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
When Minnesota State arrived back in Mankato after a weekend trip to Alaska-Anchorage, MSU coach Mike Hastings knew his club needed a spark. The Mavericks outplayed the Seawolves for a majority of the weekend but just couldn't get anywhere. MSU outshot UAA 28-10 in a 2-1 loss on Friday night and 36-16 in a 3-1 loss on Saturday.
Despite the frustration, MSU had been there before. Hastings knew the results would change in the following weekends if he received similar efforts from his players.
The second-year coach was exactly right. Minnesota State swept Ferris State last weekend with 6-2 and 4-3 wins. The victories helped MSU move back into the race for the WCHA regular-season title and earned the Mavericks College Hockey News' Team of the Week.
For a team like Minnesota State, which has played quite well in some frustrating losses in 2013-14, a commitment to systems and persistence can be difficult to maintain. The Mavericks have frequently dominated puck possession in a game without generating anything for their trouble.
"If you're getting a lot of shots, you're doing things right," Hastings said. "I look at the number to a point. If you're not getting second and third chances, the way goaltending is now, you're not going to score. We played Providence earlier this year, and we didn't get those opportunities. If you just let a goalie like Jon Gillies make first saves, he's going to bat about .980. Two weeks ago, we go up to Alaska, we allow 10 shots and 16 shots, and we come back with nothing to show for it but some frequent flyer miles."
Despite the losses to UAA and a split with Alaska just before that, the Mavericks ended the first half on a seven-game winning streak. Not much changed in terms of how the Mavericks played in that time. They stuck to their system and eventually the breaks game. Moreover, a struggling Stephon Williams made way for freshman Cole Huggins who has become a reliable option for Hastings.
Huggins, who started and won both games against Ferris State, has a 2.05 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 18 appearances. As Huggins emerged, Minnesota State started winning games.
"At times we've been a very good team," Hastings said. "At times, we've been a very average team. Early on, I thought we played well frequently, but we just weren't scoring. We needed to make a few more saves, too. Then our special teams were struggling as well. I like a lot of what I saw, but weren't getting wins."
Heading into the weekend with Ferris State, Hastings made some minor roster adjustments. Moreover, the Mavericks are now seeing the type of production from some of their best players.
"We moved Dylan Margonari to the middle," Hastings said. "It gave us a bigger presence down the middle. Any system, you're in better shape when you're strong down the middle. I think a lot of our best players, like J.P. LaFontaine and Matt Leitner, have been better. We need those guys if we're going to be successful. And we've gotten healthy at the right time."
While the wins against FSU didn't guarantee anything for MSU, they have put the Mavericks in good position to contend for championships in the league and make a run at an at-large bid with a strong finish.
This weekend, Minnesota State travels to St. Paul, Minn., to compete in the first North Star College Cup.
The new tournament, which was designed to save in-state rivalries after realignment, is a welcomed addition for Hastings. Additionally, it provides great opportunities for MSU to bolster its Pairwise rankings. MSU opens the tournament with Minnesota-Duluth on Friday afternoon. The winner of the game advances to play either St. Cloud State or Minnesota for the tournament's championship.
"This is a great opportunity for the colleges in this state to keep up with some great rivalries," Hastings said. "We still have Minnesota on our schedule. We'll be able to play Minnesota-Duluth in the future and St. Cloud State. But this tournament is a nice way for the state of Minnesota to celebrate the game of hockey. The sport means a lot to this region, and this is a good chance to put some of our best players on display. Not that every team in the tournament is made up only of players from Minnesota, but it's a good celebration of the game, especially at the Xcel Center, which is one of the best places to see or play a game."