By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
Putting up points has rarely been a problem for Matt Leitner.
Even with an entire year off from playing hockey, Leitner led the Minnesota State men’s hockey team in scoring a season ago as a redshirt freshman.
Going into this weekend’s home series against Michigan Tech, the SoCal kid has more points this season (33) than any MSU player since Travis Morin finished with 39 in 2006-07.
When first-year coach Mike Hastings got started with the Mavericks last fall, he noted Leitner’s impressive rink vision. But also he saw a player who could do oh-so-much more.
“Being more of a complete player,” Hastings said, “understanding he can contribute in other ways.”
Once again, Leitner leads MSU in point scoring, and his power-play numbers (20 points) rank among the very best in the country.
But he’s also become a more well-rounded player as the ninth-ranked Mavericks’ outstanding season has progressed. He’s learned to defend better, Hastings said, and takes pride in playing the parts of the game that might not end up on the highlight package.
You can see the change in Leitner’s plus-minus stats. As a rookie, he finished the season minus-12 and was minus-13 in WCHA play, numbers that eclipsed his own goal totals. This year, he’s even through 30 games overall and plus-2 in 22 conference games.
“My freshman year, I was so worried about scoring and helping the team that way that I lost touch with playing defense,” Leitner said. “This year, I’m in better shape, and I’m able to skate up and down the ice.
“It’s a lot different this year.”
In last weekend’s series sweep at Minnesota Duluth, Hastings praised Leitner for his third-period performance on Friday. Leitner finished the game without a point, but he took key defensive-zone faceoffs and helped limit the Bulldogs to just seven third-period shots as his team scored three times for a 4-2 win. The next night, Leitner assisted on three of MSU’s five goals. But he also helped kill off a key 5-on-3 power play, blocking a hard slapshot in the process, and the Mavericks won 5-1.
“Part of playing at this level, on and off the ice, is developmental,” Hastings said. “He’s taking more pride in his academics. He’s taking more pride in the defensive side of his game. I think he’s committing to things aren’t as sexy as scoring goals.”
Whether the Mavericks are working to get a game-tying goal or trying to preserve a late lead, Hastings wants to trust that his top-line players won’t be liabilities when the game’s on the line.
“I see him taking pride in it,” Hastings said. “He’s not pounding his chest, but I think he wants to be out there late in games.”
“I think that’s what everyone wants to do,” he said.
Leitner admitted that Hastings has pushed him and even has to remind him from time to time to bring it at both ends of the ice. But he insists he’s bought in.
“Everyone is talented at this level,” Leitner said. “You have to be able to do other things to separate yourself.”