By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
When Mike Hastings meets with his Minnesota State men’s hockey players individually, he wants them to be candid about how things are going. He asks the wings who they’d like centering their lines, and he asks the centers whom they’d prefer to see on their right and left.
“I think,” Hastings said, “right now, Matt (Leitner) likes his line, and his line likes him.”
Right now, Hastings might have a whole bunch of forwards requesting to be part of the Leit show.
Leitner, a sophomore, leads the Mavericks in scoring with 15 points in 12 games. Twelve of his points are assists, and already, six different players have cashed in one of his passes.
It doesn’t seem to matter who’s playing with him, the chemistry seems to work.
In last weekend’s series sweep at Wisconsin, Leitner had two goals and three assists, mixing well with freshman linemate Dylan Margonari during even-strength play and setting up senior Eriah Hayes on the power play.
“Going up the rink with him, you better keep your eye on him and keep your stick on the ice,” Hayes said. “He threads passes in there without you even knowing.”
As a freshman, Leitner led the Mavericks in scoring with 29 points, including 18 assists. In three years of junior hockey in the United States Hockey League, he racked up 107 assists with his 51 goals.
“Matt’s greatest gift is his ability to distribute the puck,” Hastings said. “He creates openings with his poise.”
Leitner said he’s not sure where his rink vision came from. It might have been while playing defense for several seasons a youth player. Or perhaps it came from his years playing roller hockey in southern California. The Los Alamitos, Calif., native was a part of seven national-championship roller teams between the ages of 7 and 14.
“I’ve always wanted to be a know-it-all kind of guy,” Leitner said. “I want to know where everybody’s at.”
In Leitner’s first year with the Mavericks, his play was somewhat overshadowed by fellow rookie Jean-Paul LaFontaine, who scored six of his 13 goals thanks to Leitner assists and earned third-team All-WCHA honors.
Hastings, however, broke up the line and moved Leitner’s old running mate to center, giving LaFontaine his own line.
Neither player’s production has dropped off. LaFontaine is again second on the team with 11 points, and the depth down the middle of the Mavericks’ lineup is as strong as it’s been in several years.
“It’s all about building chemistry,” said Leitner, who will anchor the No. 1 line with Margonari and junior Zach Lehrke tonight when the Mavericks host Bemidji State (LaFontaine centers Hayes and Brett Knowles). “It’s important that you and your linemates have that respect for each other.”
Hastings said Leitner’s “exceptional” play against the Badgers wasn’t just about offense.
“To me, he’s become a more well-rounded player,” Hastings said. “His willingness to play both ends of the rink, to defend, he’s become more difficult to play against at both ends of the rink. ...
“It’s crazy how the hockey gods reward that.”