Mike Hastings thinks about the shot off the post and the other off the crossbar, the near-goals that would have given his Minnesota State men’s hockey team an important third goal in the third period of last March’s NCAA tournament game against Minnesota Duluth and possibly propelled the Mavericks into the regional final.
There was also the turnover that gave the Bulldogs life in the second period and the shot in overtime that was kept out of the net by the rear end of a Mavericks player who had fallen into the goal moments before UMD went down and scored the game-winner.
When it was over, Minnesota State had lost another first-round national-tournament game. Minnesota Duluth went on to win three more games for the national championship, following a path that the Mavericks undoubtedly knew they could have — maybe should have — been on instead.
Hastings thinks about that game at Sioux Falls but, he said, doesn’t dwell on it. The Mavericks this week are embarking on a new season, and, although there are 19 players back from last season’s team, 13 who played in that fateful game, it’s all new.
“You better learn from experience — positively or negatively,” Hastings said. “It was a tough end of the season, and we better learn from that. It didn’t go the way we wanted, and we better learn from that experience.”
Junior Marc Michaelis said he thinks about that game often, but the team never talks about it.
“It’s been motivation, just for myself, I don’t know about the other guys, for the entire summer,” he said. “We were so close back then, a stick length way from making it to the next round. It stuck in my head for the entire summer, and it still gets me going.”
Sophomore defenseman Riese Zmolek echoed his teammate.
“Obviously you don’t dwell on it, but I think it drives you, especially in the summer,” he said. “That was our last game. That kind of puts a fire in you to train and get ready for the season — especially the little things. You don’t know what’s going to end your season; it could be just inches. That makes you want to prepare so it doesn’t happen again.”
There were plenty of positives, too, from last season. The Mavericks won 29 games and their third Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season championship, and they’ll raise a banner honoring that MacNaughton Cup victory when they open the season Friday night against Boston University.
The WCHA coaches are predicting that Minnesota State will win a fourth MacNaughton Cup this season, although there will be stiff competition from Northern Michigan, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech. Those teams all return starting goaltenders, while the Mavericks enter the season with three newcomers at the all-important position.
“We’re going through the process again,” Hastings said. “We’re building our identity. We’ll see how we react to adversity and how we react to success.”
Gone are two All-Americans — center C.J. Suess, who was also the WCHA’s Player of the Year last season, and defenseman Daniel Brickley — both of whom could be playing in the NHL this fall, Suess with the Winnipeg Jets and Brickley with the Los Angeles Kings. Longtime forwards Zeb Knutson and Brad McClure, both of whom had magic moments in their MSU careers, also are gone.
“We’re different already,” Hastings said. “I’m not saying that in a negative way or a positive way. We’re just different.”
Hastings is beginning his seventh season with the Mavericks. Other than winning an NCAA tournament game, it would be hard to be much more successful. The Mavericks have won more games, 151, than any other team in the country over the last six years. Besides the three MacNaughton Cups, they’ve won two WCHA playoff championships and have been to the national tournament four times.
Continuing — or bettering — that trend of success will depend on a solid core of returning players that include forwards Jake Jaremko, Parker Tuomie and Michaelis and defensemen Ian Scheid, Connor Mackey and Zmolek.
“We’re a new team now,” Michaelis said. “We gotta find our own identity (and) find where everyone’s place on the team is. We lost a lot of character, but on the other side, we need guys stepping up now.”
Besides the grind of the WCHA schedule, the Mavericks, who were ranked 10th in the U.S. College Hockey Online preseason poll, have a challenging nonconference schedule again, one that includes eighth-ranked BU this weekend, a trip to 11th-ranked North Dakota next weekend and a home-and-home series against 13th-ranked Minnesota in early November.
In December, when Hastings is away from the team coaching the U.S. National Team at the World Junior Championships in British Columbia, Canada, the Mavericks will play in Arizona State’s tournament, starting off with a familiar opponent, defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Minnesota Duluth.
“Now we get to write our own book or the next chapter of what we’re doing,” Hastings said. “That’s where the focus needs to be.”