The bar was raised a year ago. The standard set. The expectations high.
The Minnesota State men’s hockey team was supposed to be here, right? Twenty-plus wins. A real chance at the MacNaughton Cup. A Broadmoor Trophy championship. A spot in the national tournament for the second year in a row.
“We think we’re going to make a run every year,” junior forward Jean-Paul LaFontaine said.
Mike Hastings turned things around a season ago, his first year as the Mavericks’ head coach. Minnesota State qualified for the WCHA Final Five and earned a berth to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
All signs pointed to trend, rather than chance.
“I think one of the reasons hockey is special is because it does mirror life,” Hastings said Wednesday, following practice and preparation for Saturday’s NCAA Northeast Regional game against UMass Lowell. “In life, you have to earn what you get. If it’s business, if it’s academics, if it’s sports, nobody is out there just giving things away. You’ve got to earn them.”
What the Mavericks found out this season was that getting back to this spot was neither automatic nor easy.
“We were 4-7 at one time,” Hastings said. “We had to earn this opportunity.”
Indeed, things were a little rough in mid-November. The Mavericks didn’t look like the WCHA’s unanimous preseason favorite or a team that would be playing deep into March.
The season looked more like those that followed MSU’s other good seasons — 2003-04 when the Mavericks followed up its first national-tournament appearance with a mere 10 wins or 2008-09 when there was motivation to overcome the previous year’s NCAA snub only to have the season end with a thud.
Zach Lehrke had retired due to a medical condition. Josh Nelson was injured and feared lost for the season. Matt Leitner had just three points through 10 games. Stephon Williams struggled to regain his freshman-year mojo in goal.