Mavs Remain on Top of the Ratings
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
In 1861, Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, chose a French phrase – “L’Etoile du Nord” – as the state’s official motto. In English, that motto translates to “The Star of the North,” and has been the inspiration behind Minnesota’s state nickname, its former NHL franchise, and more recently, the title of an annual in-state college hockey tournament – the North Star College Cup.
Last weekend, Bemidji State, one of the five Division I teams in the North Star State, emerged victorious from the second inaugural two-day midseason tourney. Participating as well were Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Minnesota State – and for Minnesota State in particular, the weekend presented an opportunity for ongoing validation amidst a 2014-15 season that has them heading into late January as the No. 1 team in the current Pairwise.
Of course, that No. 1 position shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Minnesota State’s ascension to the statistical top ranking in college hockey has been part of a trajectory that began when current head coach Mike Hastings took over a team in 2012 that had finished below .500 for four straight seasons. In his first season, Hastings steered the Mavericks to their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade, and in his second season, Minnesota State won the WCHA tournament title, again earning an NCAA bid.
Indeed, each season, the Mavericks have made an important stride forward. But one trend in particular may have been considerably less inspiring heading into last weekend – namely, Minnesota State’s all-time record against Minnesota, a paltry 10-35-6.
Still, even facing last year’s national championship runner-up didn’t faze the first-place Mavericks, who earned a 4-2 win over a struggling Gophers team behind a two-goal outing from Bryce Gervais.
A win against the North Star State’s most distinguished program – and another stride forward.
“I think it’s an important win, I really do,” said Hastings after the game, the Mavericks’ 14th win in their last 16. “I think this tournament’s special. I think it’s great for the people in the state. Obviously, it’s nice being able to look across the rink and see purple and gold and seeing as many people who took the time to spend their money to watch a tournament like this, so we’re happy – definitely.”
After the game, much attention centered on Minnesota State junior goaltender Stephon Williams, who was assessed a delay-of-game penalty with 73 seconds remaining in the third period. An injury to teammate Casey Nelson prompted Williams to intentionally knock off his own net to allow for a stoppage of play, and Minnesota – trailing 4-2 – was awarded a penalty shot.
Williams stopped Gopher senior Seth Ambroz to help preserve the victory.
“‘What are you doing?’” said Hastings afterwards, laughing. “’We had it under control.’ It’s one of those things where you don’t plan for that stuff and it made for some good drama.”
Drama aside, Williams has been part of Minnesota State’s season-long statement, producing a personal 15-3-1 record to help backstop his team to the best winning percentage in the country. The junior’s four shutouts are tied for the most in the nation, and in front of him, senior Matt Leitner has centered the Mavericks’ most prolific offensive line, with Gervais on his right wing.
Leitner is currently second on Minnesota State’s all-time scoring list with 145 points in his four-year career, while Gervais is the leading goal-scorer this season in the WCHA.
“They had extended that shift,” said Hastings of a pivotal moment in the win over Minnesota. “I tried to talk to that line about not staying out too long, and they’d extended that shift and made a play. [Leitner] does a lot of that and Bryce, last weekend he struggled a little bit finishing some opportunities and didn’t – and tonight it was great to see him finish.”
Williams and Leitner have been integral to the Mavericks’ success this season. Nevertheless, despite the momentum built from toppling Minnesota on Friday, Minnesota State fell to conference rival Bemidji State, 3-1, on Saturday night in Minneapolis, as the Beavers won the second inaugural North Star College Cup – a reminder, though not that they necessarily needed one, that the Mavericks can’t afford to be complacent at this point.
After all, achieving the No. 1 position in the Pairwise has been one three-year long journey under Hastings. Staying there, maintaining success, and earning a No. 1 seed for the 2015 NCAA tournament, will be quite another challenge.
“The margin for error – the parity in college hockey showed this weekend,” said Hastings after the tournament. “The difference between winning and losing is minute.”
For now, at least, the only team in the nation with 19 wins thus far, the Mavericks appear to have learned what it takes to fall on the positive side of that line.
And because of it, this emerging powerhouse in the state of Minnesota – “The Star of the North” – is understandably setting its sights clearly on something even brighter on the horizon.
Kara Hille contributed to this article.