By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — When the season began, Eriah Hayes said late Saturday night, 20 wins for the Minnesota State men’s hockey team seemed like a lofty goal.
“I probably would have laughed,” he said.
But after the ninth-ranked Mavericks hit that milestone with a 6-1 victory over Michigan Tech, Hayes sees it differently.
“Obviously, it’s pretty special, coming from where we were the last two years,” he said while signing autographs with his teammates after the game. “It says a lot about the kind of team we’ve got. But I think there are some special things to come.”
This year marks the first time the Mavericks have won 20 games before the end of the regular season. They last hit that mark in 2002-03 and won a Division I era high of 21 games in 1999-2000.
“Any program winning 20 games, yeah, I think it’s a milestone,” first-year coach Mike Hastings said. “I think it’s important. It’s an accomplishment.”
Minnesota State completed the WCHA series sweep before a crowd of 4,363 at Verizon Wireless Center. It was a perfect night for a few hundred to stick around for the annual autograph session, as several players stood out.
Hayes stayed red-hot with his MSU-best 18th goal and nation-leading 11th power-play goal. Matt Leitner had a goal and an assist to give him a team-leading 36 points.
“They’re our leaders,” Hastings said. “And they do it in different ways. Matt Leitner is a special player. He and Eriah have taken their games to a new level. And they’re doing it, in my opinion, the right way. They’re not me guys, they’re we guys.”
Zach Lehrke, Dylan Margonari and Brett Knowles each had a goal and an assist. Bryce Gervais also scored a goal, and Max Gaede finished with two assists.
And then there was goaltender Stephon Williams, who stopped 37 of 38 shots for his 17th victory.
“I thought Stephon did a great job of allowing us to maintain our lead,” Hastings said. “I thought he was exceptional tonight.”
Williams held off an early charge by the Huskies. Protecting a 1-0 lead late in the first period, he had to use the back of his glove while falling backward to swat away a golden opportunity by David Johnstone.
“That was a desperation play,” Williams said. “I was fortunate. Technique goes out the window. The guy made a great move, and at that point, I was going to do anything to stop the puck.”
Williams had some luck on his side, too, when the Huskies’ best player, Blake Pietila beat him high on the blocker side but the post on a penalty shot early in the second period.
“That was a big point in the game,” he said. “If he would have scored there, it would have changed the momentum. I lucked out and gave the post a little kiss afterward.”
The Mavericks buried the Huskies after that with three goals over the final 10 ½ minutes of the second period to take a 4-0 lead into the third.
Lehrke scored short-handed off a perfect 2-on-1 pass from Knowles at 9:33. With 3:02 remaining. Hayes’ power-play goal from Leitner came at 16:58, and Leitner roofed one of his own with 56.3 seconds remaining in the frame.
Michigan Tech pulled goalie Pheonix Copley (19 saves) after that and replaced him with Jamie Phillips, who allowed two goals on five shots.
The win moved MSU into seventh place in the Pairwise rankings, which determine the NCAA tournament field at the end of the season.
“We want to build the program into something special,” Williams said, “and I think we’re on the right track.”
The Mavericks (20-9-3, 14-9-1 in WCHA) are idle next weekend and will play again March 1-2 at Colorado College. Their next home series, the final games of the regular season, is March 8-9 against North Dakota.
Michigan Tech 0-0-1—1
Minnesota State 1-3-2—6
Scoring: 1. MSU-Margonari 8 (Mosey 3, Elbrecht 4) 13:36
Scoring: 2. MSU-Lehrke 7 (Knowles 8) shg 9:33; 3. MSU-Hayes 18 (Leitner 24, Lehrke 15) 16:58; 4. MSU-Leitner
Penalties: Brown, MTU (tripping) 2:40; Leitner, MSU (tripping) penalty shot by B.Pietila missed 2:56; Margonari, MSU (boarding) 9:13; Sweeney, MTU (roughing) 15:33; Grant MSU (roughing) 20:00
Scoring: 5. MSU-Knowles 3 (Gaede 8, Jutzi 6) 6:51; 6. MTU-Eick 2 (Nielsen 4) 14:06; 7. MSU-Gervais 6 (Palmquist 16, Margonari 8) ppg 17:48
Penalties: Furne, MTU (slashing) 16:07
Shots on goal: MTU 10-9-19—38. MSU 10-13-5—28. Penalties: MTU 3 for 6 minutes; MSU 3 for 6 minutes. Power-play opportunities. MTU 0 for 2; MSU 2 for 4. Goalie saves: MTU Copley 9-10-x—19 (4 GA), Phillips x-x-3—3 (2 GA); MSU Williams 10-9-18—37 (1 GA)
Referees: Craig Welker, Matt Ulwelling. Linesmen: Nick Bradshaw, Sam Shikowsky.