By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
If the Minnesota State men’s hockey team advances out of the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament for the first time in a decade, a freshman probably will have a big say in the matter.
And that doesn’t mean just Stephon Williams.
Williams may be the league’s Rookie of the Year (see related story), but he hasn’t been the only impact newcoming in the Mavericks’ turnaround this season.
“I don’t look at them as freshmen,” coach Mike Hastings said. “They’re our team.”
When the 10th-ranked Mavericks play No. 20 Nebraska Omaha this weekend at the Verizon Wireless Center, there will be six other first-year players in the lineup, all playing key roles.
“I think our freshmen have done a good job of taking the roles they’ve played themselves into and not only accepting it but really taking pride in it,” Hastings said.
Fast-skating power forward Dylan Margonari and slick center Teddy Blueger are on the second line together and are tied for the rookie scoring lead with 19 points apiece. Margonari leads the way with 10 goals.
“I think the biggest part of that is the leadership we’ve had,” Margonari said. “They brought is in early in the summer, and we felt welcomed right away. That bond was created so early that we didn’t come in overwhelmed.”
Brett Knowles has proven to be a solid two-way forward and has scored two of the team’s biggest goals over the second half of the season — a last-minute game-winner at Minnesota and Saturday’s overtime goal against North Dakota.
He echoed Margonari, saying the upperclassmen never treated the rookies like peons.
“With our group, it’s been the complete opposite,” Knowles said. “They’ve all helped us be better. Everybody was brought in to help us as a team.”
Bryce Gervais came in as a gifted goal scorer from the British Columbia Hockey League (where he was teammates with Knowles for a year and a half), but has carved out a niche as an important penalty killer.
Knowles and Gervais have 14 and 11 points, respectively.
Defenseman Jon Jutzi has improved over the course of the season, playing every game, and forward Taylor Herndon has been thrust into the lineup with the injury of Eli Zuck.
“All of the freshmen have contributed this year, from the top all the way down,” Williams said.
Only defenseman Nick Buchanan, who has played in 21 of 36 games this season, is expected to be a scratch tonight.
“Just looking at the freshman class as a whole, everybody has a great work ethic and a great head on his shoulders,” Margonari said. “The hard work has gone a long way for our class so far.”