By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
It will be Mavericks vs. Mavericks in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.
After Denver’s 6-1 win over Alaska Anchorage on Sunday afternoon, Minnesota State finished the regular season in a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference. However, MSU ends up last in the tiebreaker with Wisconsin and Denver and will be the sixth seed for the postseason.
Most importantly for MSU, it will be home next weekend.
“When I first got here, we talked about getting home ice, and we did that,” first-year coach Mike Hastings said after Saturday’s 2-1 overtime victory over North Dakota. “Now we have to take advantage of that.”
Minnesota State will host seventh-place Nebraska Omaha on Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday at the Verizon Wireless Center. Tickets for the series go on sale at 10 a.m. today at the Verizon Wireless Center and through Ticketmaster.
Stakes are little higher than the Spirit of the Maverick Trophy that travels between the two teams. The winner will advance to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul. Omaha has never been to that event, and MSU hasn’t made it since 2003.
Minnesota State split a series at Omaha in December, winning 6-3 and losing 5-1.
Omaha has lost its last four games and seven of its last nine. MSU finished 2-2 in its last four games and has won six of its last eight.
The series also pits Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings against the team he assisted for three seasons and marks the return of former MSU coach Troy Jutting, now an assistant at UNO, to Mankato.
Other first-round matchups will be: Alaska Anchorage at St. Cloud State, Bemidji State at Minnesota, Michigan Tech at North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth at Wisconsin and Colorado College at Denver.
Saturday’s home crowd of 5,088 was the seventh-largest in MSU history and the second-largest this season (5,134 on Jan. 26 against Minnesota).
“It was fun,” goalie Stephon Williams said. “Obviously, there was a huge North Dakota fan base here, and both sides were cheering. You could feel the tension, and that made it that much more fun and intense.”
Minnesota State has had 13 crowds of 5,000 or more. Six of those games have been against North Dakota.
Saturday’s attendance and Friday’s crowd of 4,618 boosted MSU’s average this season to 3,786, an increase of 558 from last year and the highest since the Mavericks drew 3,880 per game in 2009-10.
Freshman forward Brett Knowles has five goals this season, but two of them were huge game-winners.
On Saturday, he scored the overtime goal to beat No. 5 North Dakota. Back on Jan. 25 in Minneapolis, his goal with 44 seconds left in regulation beat No. 1 Minnesota 2-1. That was his second goal of the season. He has three goals and two assists in his last five games.
Knowles also has nine assists for 14 points. He is third in scoring among MSU’s rookies. Dylan Margonari and Teddy Blueger each have 19 points.
With three points in the series, Eriah Hayes moved up to 11th on MSU’s Division I-era scoring list with 94. He is two points out of 10th. … Minnesota State ended up in ninth place in the Pairwise Rankings after the weekend. … The Mavericks played spoiler on Saturday as a North Dakota win would have meant a share of the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA champion.
Freep stars of the series
1. Stephon Williams, G, MSU: Rookie’s stellar play led to WCHA goaltending title (1.93 GAA).
2. Brett Knowles, F, MSU: Saturday’s overtime goal capped an outstanding overall game for the freshman.
3. Jean-Paul LaFontaine, F, MSU: Made a perfect pass to set up Knowles’ game-winner.