By Shane Frederick firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — With the bulk of its nonconference schedule out of the way, the Minnesota State men's hockey team is all about making hay in the WCHA now.
Four of the Mavericks' six losses have come against nonconference opponents — third-ranked Providence and top-ranked Minnesota. But at 2-2-0 in league play, the team believes it's not in as deep a hole as it might appear at first.
"We haven't got the season off to the best start, but we're still OK conference-wise," senior captain Johnny McInnis said. "I don't want to say we have a second life, but we feel a little rejuvenated."
Minnesota State plays today and Saturday at Bowling Green. It's the first of four WCHA series in as many weekends. The Mavericks will return home for back-to-back sets against Alaska Anchorage and Northern Michigan before going on the road to Alabama Huntsville to close out the first half of its overall schedule.
"It's a pivotal eight games, for sure," McInnis said.
This was the same time a year ago that the Mavericks made their first big push up the league standings. They were 3-5-2 overall and 1-5-0 in WCHA play and then won seven conference games in a row. Can they again use this stretch to get back on track?
"I think we can look at the next eight games as important," MSU coach Mike Hastings said. "But, for us, we're just looking to be prepared for (today). That's all that we can focus on and all that we can handle at the moment."
The Mavericks are locked in a five-way tie for fifth place in the standings. Each of those teams has played four games. They are seven points out of first place where Ferris State has played six league games and five points out of second where Bemidji State has played eight already. Bowling Green, which has played six conference games, is in third place, three points ahead of Minnesota State.
"They've banked some points," Hastings said.
The Mavericks were swept at Minnesota last week, scoring just one goal in the series. Bowling Green got one WCHA point in a series at Ferris State, blowing two-goal leads in both games there. Ferris State scored two goals in the final two minutes to tie Friday's game and two goals in the final four minutes to win on Saturday.
"I know (Bowling Green is) going to be excited about the opportunity to play in front of their home crowd, and we're excited now that we're back in league play," Hastings said. "They're good."
McInnis said he was encouraged by how the Mavericks played against Minnesota on Saturday, although it was a 3-0 loss.
"For the first time our compete level was where we wanted it," he said. "Even (the 1-0 overtime win over Bowling Green on Nov. 9) I don't think it was at the same level as it was last Saturday night. Hopefully, things will start falling into place. The results we've been getting is not due to a lack of effort."