By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
Every year, around this time, members of the Minnesota State men’s hockey team get asked the same question about their hopes for the last few games of the regular season.
The answers are always the same: Secure home ice for the WCHA tournament. Advance to the Final Five. Earn a spot in the national tournament.
But it’s been awhile since those goals were as realistic as they are this season.
“It’s awesome being on the positive side,” senior defenseman and co-captain Tyler Elbrecht said. “It’s good pressure to have. We have to keep working extremely hard and see where it takes us.”
Going into this weekend’s league series at Colorado College, the Mavericks control their own destiny for all of their goals.
Four games remain in the regular season (MSU closes out the schedule at home against North Dakota on March 8-9), and the Mavericks are in fifth place in the WCHA. The top six teams get home ice for the first round of the conference tournament, which they all hope will be an advantage for moving on to the big event, the Final Five at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Eight teams are still vying for those six spots.
Minnesota State, which has won four games in a row and six of its last seven, is one point out of third place in the WCHA and two out of second. The Mavericks also have a two-point lead over the sixth- and seventh-place teams and are five points ahead of eighth-place Colorado College.
“It’s been a blast,” said Elbrecht, who has been a part of two 11th-place league finishes and an eighth-place end. “It makes coming to the rink fun. ... It makes coming to work easy.”
The Mavericks also rank seventh in the Pairwise Rankings, which are ultimately used to determine the 16-team national-tournament field. In some ways, MSU’s position to earn an NCAA bid is more secure right now than it is for its first upper-division finish since 2008 and third in program history.
Coach Mike Hastings admitted that it may sound trite or cliché, but the Mavericks aren’t trying to do a lot of postseason calculations right now.
“There’s no scoreboard we’ll be watching more than the one in the arena we’re at,” he said.
In other words, the only equation that matters to the Mavericks is winning.
“The focus of this group ever since Day 1 — and they’ve done a good job of staying with it — is controlling what we can control,” Hastings said. “Once you get outside of that, you don’t get to control anything.”
Hastings said captains Eriah Hayes and Elbrecht have kept the team “on point.”
With 20 wins, Minnesota State is just one victory shy of equaling its Division I-era record total set in 1999-2000. The last time the Mavericks had 20 wins, 2002-03, was also the last time they went to the Final Five and the NCAA tournament.
Before the season began, the WCHA coaches and the media who cover the league picked the Mavericks to finish 10th in the conference.
“It’s about believing,” Elbrecht said. “It goes back to the guys in the locker room getting the job done. Every team in this league has skill; it’s a matter of getting everybody buying in and going from there.”