By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
Since returning from its holiday break, the Minnesota State men’s hockey team has been going nonstop.
A trip to Connecticut, another to Alaska, a physical series with Wisconsin and a tough home-and-home weekend with No. 1-ranked Minnesota were among the 10 games MSU played over the last five weeks.
The Mavericks went 6-3-1 in that stretch, including a win over Minnesota Friday in Minneapolis and a loss at home to the Gophers on Saturday.
Minnesota State gets a breather now with an off week before getting back to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association grind at Minnesota Duluth.
“Coming back from Christmas we’ve played some pretty good hockey,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said after Saturday’s 4-1 loss. “We definitely need the break.
“It’s time for our guys to get some rest and for us to do some things, coaching-wise, that hopefully will get us a little more fresh mentally (and) physically and continue to get us better.”
The Mavericks will play UMD on Feb. 8-9. The Bulldogs (10-11-3, 8-7-3 in WCHA) played an exhibition game against the U.S. National Under-18 Team on Saturday, winning 3-1, and host Denver this weekend.
When it comes to Minnesota State’s freshmen, Brett Knowles hadn’t received the notoriety of fellow rookies Stephon Williams, Teddy Blueger or Dylan Margonari.
Until Friday, that is.
Knowles has had a solid season as a defensive-minded forward and penalty killer who has shown veteran-like gumption when it comes to skating and hitting. But his game-winning goal with 44 seconds remaining in the game Friday at Mariucci Arena showed he has a little finish to him, too.
“It’s one of those things where you’re happy for a guy that puts in the amount of work that he puts in,” Hastings said. “He’s done a good job at elevating his physical stature and making sure that he was going to have the legs to finish there.”
The 5-foot-11, 181-pound wing from Vanderfhoof, British Columbia, now has two goals and six assists.
In the Mavericks’ two wins over the Gophers this season, freshmen have scored the game winners. It was Knowles on Friday and Margonari on Nov. 3 in Mankato.
Hastings defended his decision to pull his goalie while trailing 3-1 with about four minutes still to play on Saturday.
The Gophers Erik Haula ended up quickly scoring an empty-net goal with 3:32 to go, making it 4-1.
“A loss is a loss, in my opinion, if it’s one goal or it’s four,” Hastings said. “We’re playing to win a hockey game. I want to show the group that I believe in them and that we think we can get it done, and, you know what, they scored an empty netter.”
Saturday’s Verizon Wireless Center attendance figure of 5,134 was the fifth-largest hockey crowd in arena history.
The four biggest: 5,201 vs. Minnesota (Jan. 30, 2009), 5,196 vs. Minnesota (Nov. 9, 2007), 5,182 vs. North Dakota (Feb. 22, 2003), 5,144 vs. North Dakota (Feb. 26, 2000).
Saturday was the 12th time that an MSU game hit the 5,000 attendance mark but the first since Feb. 28, 2009 when 5,013 saw a game against Wisconsin.
With an assist on Friday, Mavericks leading scorer Matt Leitner became the first Minnesota State player to reach 30 points since Mick Berge (31), Kurt Davis (31) and Kael Mouillierat (30) each finished with at least that number in the 2008-2009 season.
Leitner, a sophomore forward, has 10 goals and 20 assists, one more point than the team-high 29 points he scored as a freshman. He also leads the country in power-play points with 17.
Bryce Gervais’ assist on Zach Lehrke’s goal on Saturday was his first helper of the season. … Minnesota State is 11-0-0 in games in which Eli Zuck has a point. He assisted on the game-winning goal on Friday. … Despite splitting a series with the nation’s No. 1 team, the Mavericks fell to 16th in the Pairwise rankings after the weekend.
Freep stars of the series
1. Stephon Williams, G, MSU: Freshman stopped 20 shots in the third period on Friday and 62 in the series.
2. Adam Wilcox, G, UM: Gophers rookie made 57 on 60 shots saves on the weekend.
3. Brett Knowles, F, MSU: Freshman forward scored first career game-winner on Friday.