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Sophomore defenseman Jack McNeely (3) ranks first in the WCHA and ninth in the country in plus-minus at plus-22 this season, helping bolster a defensive corps that might be the strength of fourth-ranked Minnesota State’s team. File photo

MANKATO — It’s no big secret that the Minnesota State men’s hockey team doesn’t give up a lot of goals.

During the regular season, the No. 4 Mavericks allowed a national-low 1.81 goals per game as it compiled a 27-7-2 record. Since the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019, they’ve allowed just 1.38 goals per game while going 13-2-1. The two losses in that stretch both ended 1-0.

The goaltending’s been outstanding with freshman Dryden McKay carrying most of the load, but the group in front of him certainly can’t be overlooked even if it is flying under the radar.

In fact, the D corps just might be the strength of the team heading into the WCHA playoffs, which begin tonight when the top-seeded Mavericks host eighth-seeded Alabama Huntsville in the first game of a best-of-three series.

“It’s not just one or two guys a night showing up,” said sophomore Connor Mackey. “It’s all six or seven. It’s everybody contributing out there and trying to stay consistent in our game.”

Although it’s not exactly a no-name defense, there’s not necessarily an All-American in the group getting all the attention or all the ice time as there was the last two years with Daniel Brickley or four years ago with Zach Palmquist.

Instead, it’s been a collective effort with different players playing to their different strengths, whether those are in even-strength play, on the power play or penalty kill, chipping in offensively or preserving leads late in games.

“It’s been a benefit,” coach Mike Hastings said. “It’s been a real positive to be able to go six deep back there and at times seven.”

The 6-foot-2 Mackey and 5-11 junior Ian Scheid are the leading scorers on the blue line with 22 points apiece, playing in all situations. Scheid, the most-experienced player in the group, has 72 career points, which ranks 12th in MSU’s career scoring list for defensemen.

At plus-18, 6-1 sophomore Riese Zmolek plays a hard game and is, perhaps, the most dependable shut-down defenseman in the conference, killing penalties along with 6-0 junior Edwin Hookenson, who ranks second in the country with 88 blocked shots.

The player who’s taken the biggest leap from last year is 6-foot-3 sophomore Jack McNeely, who leads the WCHA and is ninth in the country in plus-minus at plus-22.

Freshmen Andy Carroll and Wyatt Aamodt have traded places as the sixth defenseman or dressed as the seventh D when coach Mike Hastings opts to use the 19th skater spot for a defenseman instead of a forward.

“I think everybody’s willing to carry the load,” Hastings said. “There are lot of different roles that get divided amongst that group.”

Minnesota State allowed 2.1 goals per game last year, the rookie season for Mackey, Zmolek and McNeely, who had to grow up fast in college hockey.

“I think we’re more confident, stepping into bigger roles this year,” Mackey said.

Three players — Zmolek, Mackey and Scheid — have won WCHA Defensive Player of the Week awards this season but none came in the second half of the season. Perhaps it’s because it would be hard to pick just one.

“We’re able to distribute the minutes throughout our lineup back on the blue line,” Hastings said. “And they’re OK with being successful in what their roles are. That always doesn’t get you a lot of accolades; that doesn’t get talked about a lot. They’re OK taking pride in defending and helping our goaltenders not see a lot of quality shots.”

For more college hockey coverage, read Shane Frederick's Puckato blog and follow him on Twitter @puckato

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College hockey, general sports reporter