By Shane Frederick
The Free Press
With 20 wins and a fairly comfortable No. 7 ranking in the Pairwise, it sure looks like the Minnesota State men's hockey team is hurling toward a berth in the NCAA tournament a little more than a month from now.
If the Mavericks get there, it will be their first trip to nationals in a decade. That 2002-03 team also was the last one to hit the 20-victory milestone.
Coach Mike Hastings doesn't want to look too far ahead, and last week said,
"We're not making hotel reservations anywhere other than Colorado College right now," referring to his team's next road series coming up on March 1-2.
Four games remain in the regular season and the WCHA playoffs will take place after that.
Before they start considering nationals, the Mavericks are working to secure home ice for the conference tournament and the best possible shot at getting to the final Final Five. They're currently in third place, although some of the teams around them have games in hand.
Missing that event for nine straight years is a sore subject around Mankato, and fans would love nothing more -- yes, maybe even more than the NCAAs! -- than to get to St. Paul in the final year of the WCHA as we know it.
The '02-03 team was also the last MSU squad to make it to the league championship weekend -- just as the program's other 20-victory team, the 21-win 1999-2000 team did (that year, it was at the Target Center in Minneapolis) -- and fans still talk of that team with great fondness. Grant Stevenson, Shane Joseph and B.J. Abel, among others, are practically folk heroes around these parts after going on that 17-game unbeaten streak and tying for second place in the WCHA that season.
While I'm not sure this year's team has any All-Americans, it is another group that should be easy for fans to get behind.
How can you not appreciate the all-out effort and nightly production of senior forward and co-captain Eriah Hayes? Or his success story as a small-town, southern Minnesota kid who didn't have the easiest path to college hockey?
Watching the offensive skills and continued improvement of talented sophomore Matt Leitner has been a treat. Every week, it seems, Hastings is calling him "a special player," and his teammates, especially those on his line or his power-play group, certainly feel the same way.
Then there's the goaltender, Stephon Williams, who has had the benefit of a more disciplined defense than many of his predecessors had but has been outstanding when needed. His numbers right now don't just make him a favorite for the league's All-Rookie Team, but it's probably time to toss his name into the mix for WCHA Rookie of the Year consideration.
The Mavericks might not be thinking about the future -- or the past -- right now, but, given the run that they're on, it's hard not to think of those things.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.