Back in the fall, Matt Leitner was picked to be the best player in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but he got off to a slower start than expected.
Perhaps Northern Michigan forgot all about that preseason prediction because Leitner caught the Wildcats off-guard Friday night.
During a power play midway through the third period, Leitner breezed over the blue line and past three defenders to score what would be the game-winning goal in the Mavericks' 3-2 victory before a crowd of 3,233 at Verizon Wireless Center.
“He's a dynamic hockey player,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “You need guys to make a play at that time of the game, and he did.”
The win was the fourth in a row for Minnesota State (8-7-0, 6-3-0 in WCHA).
The Mavericks controlled the tempo of the game throughout, outshooting the Wildcats 41-16 in the first-ever meeting between the two teams.
Zach Stepan and Dylan Margoniari scored first-period goals off assists from the other to give MSU an early 2-0 lead, but the Mavericks couldn't pull away.
“We knew if we kept coming and kept playing our game, we'd get a break,” said Leitner, who now has 10 points in 12 games. “We played with speed, and that's the way we like to play, no matter what the score is.”
Northern Michigan goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom proved tough to beat, making 38 saves.
The Mavericks' Cole Huggins finished with 14 stops, allowing a breakaway goal by Reed Seckel late in the first period and a power-play goal to Shane Sooth just 29 seconds into the third.
“We stayed with it,” Hastings said, “and stayed together.”
The Mavericks were dominant for the first 17 minutes of the first period, especially the line of Stepan, Margonari and Johnny McInnis.
Stepan opened the scoring at 6:11. Margonari had the puck in the slot but saw Stepan crashing down the left side all alone and slid it to the freshman for an easy tap-in. Defenseman Brett Stern also assisted on the goal.
“The chemistry between Margonari and Stepan was evident early in the game,” Hastings said.
Seven minutes later, that line scored again. Stepan won a faceoff to defenseman Carter Foguth who moved the puck over Margonari at the top of the right circle. Margonari's seeing-eye shot made its way through several bodies before slipping past Dahlstrom.
“They don't have to be pretty,” Hastings said. “We just got it to the net, we had some traffic and it found its way through.”
Northern Michigan got on the board with 2:07 remaining when Seckel got free. While not a short-handed goal, the score came just as an MSU power play ended. The Mavericks have allowed four short-handed goals this season.
While Dahlstrom proved hard to beat, even with some quality power-play chances in the second period, Huggins got a little pickup from his teammates when MSU was short-handed.
Killing a two-man penalty midway through the period, a Wildcats shot trickled behind Huggins and lay near the right post. The three-man killing team of Leitner, Foguth and John Jutzi found a way to clear the puck to safety and kill off the 66-second disadvantage.
The teams traded power-play goals in the third. Sooth scored on an open shot from the slot to tie the game. Leitner answered at 11:52 during a Wildcats major penalty. The goal was set up in the neutral zone by Zach Lehrke, who now has seven points in five games since returning to the team.
"Lehrke dropped it to me, right on the money," said Leitner, who zipped across the blue line, past the defenders and shot the puck over Dahlstrom's stick-side shoulder.
The Mavericks and Wildcats will play again at 7:07 p.m. tonight.