The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 6, 2014

Stepan returns early; Mavs split with Alaska

By Shane Frederick sfrederick@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — Zach Stepan crossed 10 time zones to meet up with his Minnesota State men’s hockey teammates in time for Saturday’s game.

Jet lag didn’t seem to bother the freshman at all, as he scored his team’s first goal in what would end up a 6-4 WCHA victory over Alaska.

“He was really excited about getting here to play,” coach Mike Hastings said in a phone interview afterward. “He’s a mentally tough kid. He played a lot of minutes, and he was our best face-off guy tonight. That was a real gutty performance.”

Stepan was in Sweden playing for the U.S. Junior National Team at the World Junior Championships. The Americans were eliminated in the quarterfinals on Thursday. Had they won and kept playing, Stepan would have missed the entire Alaska series and not rejoined the MSU team until today. Instead, he was in Faribanks late Friday following the first game of the Alaska series.

Saturday’s win gave the Mavericks a series split with the Nanooks. Alaska won 4-2 on Friday, snapping the Mavericks’ seven-game winning streak.

Jean-Paul LaFontaine scored two goals and assisted on another on Saturday. He leads the team with 10 goals and 19 points. Chase Grant also and a three-point game with a goal and two assists.

“We’ve needed (Grant),” Hastings said. “Ever since we came back (from break), even in practice, he’s started to assert himself offensively.”

Matt Leitner assisted on two goals.

The fourth-liners even chipped in, as Max Gaede had the game-winner, and freshman Jordan Nelson also scored a goal.

The Mavericks finished 2 for 5 on the power play after getting blanked with the man advantage on Friday. But, more importantly, they scored four 5-on-5 goals. Unlike Friday’s game, in which the Mavericks outshot the Nanooks 38-19, Minnesota State crashed the net and got more pucks past goalie Davis Jones.

“We paid a price to score some goals,” Hastings said.

The game was tied 1-1 after one period, and LaFontaine scored twice in the second period as MSU took a 3-2 lead into the second intermission.

In the third, Grant put the Mavericks up 4-2 at 10:22, but Alaska scored one its two power-play goals just 23 seconds later to make it a one-score game again.

Gaede’s first goal of the season at 12:23 made it 5-3, and Nelson made it a three-goal game a little more than two minutes later.

Nelson and Stepan both have five goals in their first college seasons.

The Mavericks outshot the Nanooks 33-25, including a 15-7 advantage in the third period. Freshman goaltender Cole Huggins stopped 25 saves, including 12 in the first period, for his eighth win of the season.

Notes: Leitner and Johnny McInnis scored MSU’s goals on Friday. Zach Palmquist had two assists. ... Sophomore defenseman Blake Thompson made his MSU debut on Saturday after transferring from Minnesota a year ago. ... The Mavericks will remain in Alaska, and play Alaska Anchorage on Friday and Saturday. They traveled by bus from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Sunday morning. ... Minnesota State (12-8-0, 10-4-0 in WCHA) is in second place in the WCHA standings, two points behind leader Ferris State.