It’s finals week at Minnesota State University, no easy time for any student.
For those who are also athletes, it can be quite a grind, dealing with stress of those final exams, papers and presentations along with preparations for upcoming, important games.
The Mavericks men’s hockey team has a big test at the end of the week, as they go to Nebraska Omaha for their final Western Collegiate Hockey Association series of 2012. Come 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, Minnesota State has a chance to be in first place in the conference at the season’s halfway mark.
That would be acing the exam.
Landing a spot in the national rankings this week for the first time in four years, No. 20 MSU is tied with St. Cloud State for third place in the WCHA. The much-improved purple Mavs sit one point ahead of the 13th-ranked red Mavs of Omaha.
There are intriguing storylines that will be looked at later in the week, namely the coach swap that took place between the two teams in the offseason. But the big story is the one that is happening with the Mankato-based Mavericks right now.
Six wins in a row. Seven conference wins before Christmas. Several legitimate all-conference players who have been lighting up the league.
Are the Mavericks the surprise team in the league? Depends on who you ask.
Go back to the Mike Hastings press conference, and recall the talk about this team being ripe to make a big leap this season.
There was plenty of excitement about Hastings’ hiring. One reason was the coach’s resume. Another was the team he was inheriting. On paper, it looked like a group with veteran leadership, young offensive talent and an intriguing freshman class. It looked like a group that might jell this season and give the new regime something to build on in the new-look WCHA.
For the most part, those pieces have come together and embraced Hastings’ methods. But before the season, most of the media and league coaches wanted to see it to believe it, and they voted the Mavericks to finish 10th in the 12-team league during the preseason.
Before you argue that Minnesota State is improved but just beat up on the bottom three teams in the WCHA, you need to remember that nothing comes easy in this sport. Consider:
n The Mavericks were one of those teams last year, actually the last two years, and before Friday, their last home win over Alaska Anchorage came in 2010.
n Going into last weekend, Anchorage had yet to get swept in a series this season, taking at least one from Minnesota, North Dakota and St. Cloud State.
n Bemidji State took three points at Nebraska Omaha earlier this season and split at Minnesota Duluth this weekend.
n Wisconsin bounced back from its two losses to MSU by winning and tying at Denver — then ranked No. 2 in the country — a week later.
“We really are a good team,” senior co-captain Tyler Elbrecht said on Saturday. “We’re really playing together.”
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.