By Shane Frederick firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — 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.
“Pick your black cloud,” Hastings said.
Things began to perk up around Thanksgiving, however.
Lehrke changed his mind and returned to the team, making an immediate impact, especially on what had been a struggling power play. Nelson, a senior defenseman and assistant captain, eventually came back (although is out again now). Leitner caught fire, scoring 41 points in 30 games. Cole Huggins took over in goal and found his own rookie magic. LaFontaine and Johnny McInnis became 20-goal scorers.
“(Getting to the NCAAs) was definitely a goal coming into the season,” junior forward and assistant captain Chase Grant said. “We didn’t necessarily have the start to the season that we wanted. We had to learn where not working hard and not doing the little things will get you.”
The Mavericks closed out the first half of their schedule with a seven-game winning streak, but they weren’t all they way back quite yet.
A roller-coaster January included a big home sweep of first-place Ferris State sandwiched by a 1-3-0 trip to Alaska and a disappointing performance in the inaugural North Star College Cup against former WCHA mates, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State.
The low point came a week later when Minnesota State lost 5-2 at Northern Michigan. The Mavericks were 14-13-0, 12-7-0 in the WCHA, and their chances of being in the hunt for a league title and national tournament appeared to be shaky at best.
“Against Northern Michigan, I really thought that Friday night we got what we deserved,” Hastings said. “Then Saturday night (a 5-1 MSU win) we got what we deserved. The leadership group — everybody inside the locker room – said, ‘You know what? This just isn’t good enough.’”
The Mavericks haven’t lost since that Jan. 31 game at Marquette, Mich., reeling off 13 games without a loss.
A tie with Michigan Tech on the final day of the regular season kept them one point short of the WCHA’s championship. But the Mavericks won the league’s playoff title a week ago.
With the way the other conference tournaments were shaking out, Minnesota State went into the Final Five championship game not at all locked into a spot for the national tournament. Only a victory over Ferris State would guarantee their season would keep going.
“I will say there was a belief and a how-to from this group,” Hastings said. “They stuck together.”
The Mavericks left Mankato on Thursday and will practice today at the DCU Center at Worcester, Mass., site of the regional.
“We want to be a team the rest of the town wants to be proud of,” Grant said.
NCAA Northeast Regional DCU Center, Worcester, Mass. Saturday Denver vs. Boston College, 3 p.m. Minnesota State vs. UMass Lowell, 6:30 p.m. Sunday Championship, 4 p.m.