The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 17, 2013

Stepan, Team USA defeat Mavericks in exhibition

By Shane Frederick
sfrederick@mankatofreepress.com

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MANKATO — There was no kindness from Minnesota State teammates for Zach Stepan on Tuesday night – at least not until the end of the game.

Stepan was on the other team, playing for the U.S. Junior National Team and hoping to make the final roster that will go to Sweden this week.

But he was going to get no help from his friends.

Goaltender Stephon Williams snagged his wide-open 2-on-1 shot out of the air early in the second period, and Zach Lehrke toyed with him late in the period with some nifty stickhandling on a power play.

"It was a little weird but definitely a lot of fun for me," said Stepan, who joined his MSU teammates for a center-ice stick salute after the game. "Just talking to the guys, they're all supportive and hope I make the team. It was nice to go out there against them. Of course, there was a little chirping."

Team USA, with a roster full of college and major-junior all-stars, won the game at 3:14 of overtime on a pretty goal by Minnesota's Hudson Fasching. The U.S. outshot MSU 30-22.

With some players who have roster spots locked up sitting in the stands, Stepan was Team USA's fourth-line center and got the start.

"What (Stepan) is is a good utility guy," said Team USA coach Don Lucia, who is also the Gophers' coach. "That's one of his strengths. He can play three forward positions, a little power play if necessary, some penalty kill. Versatility is one of his great strengths."

Stepan thought he kept himself in the mix by his play on Tuesday.

He was plus-2 with three shots on goal. He played some penalty kill but was not on the ice for either of the Mavericks' power-play goals (scored by Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Johnny McInnis).

"I think I came out of the game all right," Stepan said, "being out there for two (goals), not getting scored on. If you play the third line you want to be even or be a plus."

Stepan was a late addition to the U.S. team, which began practicing on Sunday evening in Minneapolis, although he particpated in last summer's evaluation camp.

“He had a good camp for us, a camp that intrigued some guys,” Team USA general manager Jim Johannson said before the game. “We told all three (late additions), 'You're not forward 16 or 17 or defenseman 9. You all had injuries.' We needed to see a little more and make sure we were doing the right thing for everyone.”

His advice to Stepan:

“Just to be Zach Stepan. We tell all the players, 'Be the player that got you here.' We try to put all the guys in situations they're strong in. That's the challenge for the coaches in the evaluation process."

After a scoreless first period, Minnesota State grabbed leads of 1-0 and 2-1 on its power play.

At 6:05 of the second peroid, LaFontainel got the rebound of a Matt Leitner shot and tucked it in behind goalie Jon Gilles. LaFontaine has had the hot hand on the power play of late. Seven of his eight goals in the regular season have come with the man advantage. Zach Palmquist also assisted on the goal.

Team USA tied the game at 8:51 on a goal by Denver's Quentin Shore, who sniped a shot from the right circle.

The Mavericks went up again on McInnis' power-play goal from LaFontaine and Palmquist at 2:44 of the third period, but Team USA answered on its own power play at 9:03 on a goal by Boston College defenseman Ian McCoshen.

In Fasching made a couple of nifty moves to get around MSU defenseman Blake Thompson and open up goalie Evan Karambelas before scoring the winner.

"That's a good hockey player (Thompson's) against," Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. "I think (Fasching's) special, and he showed what he can do in a crucial moment of the game. ... I think you've got to give him credit."

Karambelas, MSU's third-string goalie entered the game at the start of the third period and stopped 11 of 13 shots. Williams made 16 saves in the first two periods.

Thompson was making his Minnesota State debut. He transferred to MSU from Minnesota a year ago and became eligible this week after the first semester of classes ended.

Minnesota State's lineup was mixed up from recent weeks.

Besides Stepan playing on the opposite team, sophomore center Teddy Blueger was in Poland with the Latvian Junior National Team, which is playing a level down in the Division I Group A World Junior Tournament.

Defenseman Jon Jutzi and forward Matt Knowles sat out with upper-body injuries, while defenseman Josh Nelson and forward Michael Huntebrinker remained out with the injuries that have caused them to miss most of the season so far.

Hastings said the Mavericks were no worse for the wear after the game and will now go on holiday break.

"Nobody got dinged up, which was important," Hastings said. "That's a real good hockey team. We didn't win the hockey game, but I thought we did everything but."