The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

March 31, 2013

Future looks bright for MSU men's hockey

TOLEDO, OHIO — If there was any doubt as to how high the bar has been raised for the Minnesota State men’s hockey team, one only needed to hear the words of coaches and players immediately after their NCAA tournament loss to Miami on Saturday night.

“I think it’s fair to go and look in the mirror and say we’ve made some progress — some significant progress,” coach Mike Hastings said. “But I don’t think we can be satisfied with that progress because we’re going home and somebody else is moving on.”

The Mavericks lost their last two games of the season — Saturday in the Midwest Regional and nine days earlier in the WCHA Final Five. This was the first season MSU earned trips to both of those tournaments in 10 years.

“I think we were prepared for the challenge,” Hastings said. “But the thing we need to take away from tonight is the same thing we need to take away from our opportunity at the Final Five. In the end, it wasn’t enough.”

While simply getting to those postseason events wasn’t enough for this year’s team, it was significant for the program.

Today is the one-year anniversary of Minnesota State’s decision to dismiss Troy Jutting as men’s hockey coach. Two weeks later, the school hired Hastings, and the turnaround began.

“What a difference a year makes,” athletic director Kevin Buisman said, “when you think about what we were doing and what we were going through a year ago this weekend. …

“I think we’re ahead of schedule.”

After winning a combined 26 games and taking 11th place in the WCHA twice in the previous two seasons, the Mavericks won a Division I era record 24 games this year and tied for fourth in the WCHA.

Throughout the regional, Hayes and Elbrecht talked about how, when Jutting was fired, they wouldn’t have guessed they’d be playing in the NCAAs a year later.

“When you look at what we accomplished this year, the guys have to be really proud of what we did,” senior co-captain Eriah Hayes said. “To go from 11th place to fourth place and to the Final Five and the national tournament, it’s a pretty special group of guys.”

The Mavericks lose five seniors, most notably Hayes and Tyler Elbrecht, both of whom played in every game. Hayes, a forward, had his best season with 20 goals, including 13 on the power play, and graduates second on MSU’s all-time games-played list with 153. Elbrecht, a defensive defenseman and two-year co-captain, played in 142 career games.

Forward Eli Zuck developed into a top penalty killer before injuries derailed the end of his season. Defenseman Evan Mosey played in 26 games this season. Goaltender Phil Cook ended up No. 2 behind Stephon Williams but had a career record of 28-29-7.

“I’m going to miss those guys; we’re going to miss them,” Hastings said. “They helped move the rock.”

But the Mavericks’ future seems very bright.

They didn’t just capture lightning in a bottle, Buisman said.

“There’s a lot of optimism that we can be the top team in the new WCHA,” Buisman said, “and be in this tournament on a regular basis.”

Minnesota State will return 11 of its top 12 scorers, including leading scorer Matt Leitner (47 points) and third-place Jean-Paul LaFontaine (35), along with top defenseman Zach Palmquist (25) and third-leading goal scorer Johnny McInnis (13 goals).

Hastings’ first recruiting class will arrive in the fall, and, of course, Williams, the WCHA’s Rookie of the Year, will also be back after his stellar freshman season.

“We definitely wanted a better outcome,” Williams said Saturday. “But we’re going to prepare to work even harder next year for a better outcome.”

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