MANKATO — Minnesota State had just lost to third-ranked Denver in a close game at home to drop to 1-5-0 in Western Collegiate Hockey Association play. The Mavericks had played the powerful Pioneers tough — probably outplayed them over the course of the weekend — but ended up getting swept in the series.
It was early November, and the Mavericks were showing hints of improvement from the beginning of the season and signs of betterment from two consecutive years of 11th-place hockey.
But hints? Signs? You don’t get points for those.
First-year coach Mike Hastings had a question for his players after that weekend against Denver: They have been close so many times before. Was being close good enough?
“He said, ‘Do you want to continue down the path we’ve been on the last three years, or do you want to be special?’” senior forward Eriah Hayes recalled. “Do we want to win games or be the team that didn’t amount to anything? If we want to be a special team, we have to bury that other team.”
Minnesota State will play in the NCAA tournament for just the second time in the program’s Division I era on Saturday in Toledo, Ohio. The Mavericks, with a Division I era-best 24 victories, are the third seed in the Midwest Regional and will take on second-seeded Miami.
But after that Denver weekend nearly five months ago, the Mavericks, while improved, had neither the record nor the look of a team that would be playing meaningful games in the last weekend in March.
“After the Denver series, (Hastings) said, ‘You don’t want to let this opportunity slip away, with the talent you have. It’s time for everybody to buy in,’” senior defenseman Tyler Elbrecht said. “He’s got his way of proving his point.”