By Shane Frederick
MANKATO — In hockey, games often tighten up in the playoffs. And in the WCHA, with its bunched-up standings this season, the playoffs started a week early.
Playing for a shot at its first league championship, Minnesota State found itself in a tight game with Michigan Tech on Friday night before a crowd of 3,484 at the Verizon Wireless Center.
The game was scoreless until the final 3:42 of the third period when the Mavericks scored three times in the 3-0 win.
“It was a playoff-type atmosphere, playoff-type-hockey,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “I don’t think either team gave up a lot of scoring opportunities.”
On one of the few clean plays of the night, Dylan Margonari broke the stalemate, redirecting defenseman Brett Stern’s slap pass behind goalie Pheonix Copley.
“That was a tremendous pass,” said Margonari, who scored his eighth goal. “We work on stuff like that all the time, going low to high. I was just coming across from the back side and he found me.”
From there, Chase Grant and Bryce Gervais (empty-netter) added to the lead, and freshman goaltender Cole Huggins finished off a 26-save shutout.
It was the eighth straight victory for the Mavericks (22-13-0, 20-7-0 in WCHA), and they will go into tonight’s regular-season finale with a chance to win the MacNaughton Cup. Minnesota State is tied for first place with Ferris State, a 2-1 winner over Lake Superior State on Friday.
“Obviously, it’s pretty special,” Stern said. “The biggest thing is just playing our game.”
Michigan Tech, which was trying to clinch home ice for the league playoffs, took the Mavericks out of their game, bottling them up and keeping their high-octane power play scoreless on five chances. Copley finished with 29 saves, including 12 in the second period.
“Tech is one of the best teams in our league,” Hastings said, “and I thought that showed throughout the game.”
The Mavericks outshot the Huskies 8-3 in the first period, keeping pucks away from Huggins. But it evened out after that with the teams getting 12 shots each in a second period that featured seven penalties.
Minnesota State also killed off five power plays, including a minute’s worth midway through the third period.
For awhile, it looked like the Mavericks didn’t have luck on their side either. In the second period, they botched a 3-on-1 rush, and with about four minutes left in the game, Zach Lehrke had a wide-open net but pushed a 2-on-1 pass from Grant just wide.
When Margonari finally scored, they Mavericks could relax right?
“I looked at the clock and there was 3:40 left,” Grant said. “That was a bit too much time for me. I kept saying, ‘Calm down. There’s too much time.’ It was good that we kept coming.”
Less than two minutes later, Grant made it 2-0, smacking in a perfect behind-the-net pass from Johnny McInnis, at the top of the crease.
Gervais added an empty-net goal with 1:09 remaining, and Huggins finished off his fifth shutout of the season and his third in four starts.
Minnesota State will close out the regular season against Michigan Tech at 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
In other WCHA games, Bowling Green defeated Bemidji State 5-3, and Northern Michigan defeated Alabama Huntsville 4-1. Alaska Anchorage and Alaska played late.
Michigan Tech 0-0-0—0
Minnesota State 0-0-3—3
Penalties: Hyland, MTU (interference) 4:39; Gaede, MSU, double-minor (elbowing, unsportsmanlike conduct) 15:20.
Penalties: Stern, MSU (interference) :56; Sweeney, MTU (high-sticking) 1:01; Gervais, MSU (interference) 1:01; Sweeney, MTU (tripping) 7:30; D. Johnstone, MTU (tripping) 14:54; Palmquist, MSU (slashing) 16:21; Petan, MTU (holding) 17:32.
Scoring: 1. MSU-Margonari 8 (Stern 6, LaFontaine 19) 16:18; 2. MSU-Grant 8 (McInnis 15, Blueger 16) 18:06; 3. MSU-Gervais 11 (unassisted) eng 18:51.
Penalties: Nelson, MSU (elbowing) 9:28; D. Johnstone, MTU (high-sticking) 10:24
Shots on goal: MTU 3-12-11—26. MSU 8-12-12—32. Penalties: MTU 6 for 12 minutes; MSU 6 for 12 minutes. Power-play opportunities. MTU 0 for 5; MSU 0 for 5. Goalie saves: MTU Copley 8-12-9—29 (2 GA); MSU Huggins 3-12-11—26 (0 GA)
MSU called its timeout at 3:06 of the third period. MTU called its timeout at 5:50 of the third period.
Referees: Pete Friesema, Butch Mousseaux. Linesemen: Rick Nelson, Matt Tyree.