MANKATO — For 10 years, the Minnesota State men’s hockey team has missed out on the WCHA Final Five.
The way it started off the third and decisive game of a first-round conference playoff series on Sunday night, there was no way it was going to miss out on another of the league’s big parties in St. Paul.
“I’ve waited four years for it,” senior defenseman Tyler Ebrecht said. “We’ve put the work in, and it finally paid off.”
Minnesota State dominated the first period and went on to defeat Nebraska Omaha 3-1 before a Verizon Wireless Crowd of just 2,405. The win gave MSU a berth into the Final Five for the first time since 2003.
The Mavericks (24-12-3) will play Wisconsin at 2:07 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center.
“It means a lot for the school and the community,” said sophomore center Matt Leitner, who had a third-period goal and an assist. “We might not realize it right now, but it’s big.”
Minnesota State got off to a great start, outshooting Omaha 12-3 in the first period and getting goals from Bryce Gervais and Max Gaede.
“That’s probably the best 20 minutes we’ve had in a good month,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “I thought we came out with energy and thought we were committed to what we needed to do.”
And if not for a couple of huge saves by UNO’s John Faulkner (32 saves) on Eriah Hayes, it could have been 4-0.
Gervais started the scoring at 8:23. The winger was moved up to the first line on Saturday and connected on a perfect pass from Chase Grant. Gervais crashed down the middle of the rink as Grant put the puck out front from the wall behind the net.
Gaede made it 2-0 a little more than five minutes later with his first goal of the season. The snakebit sophomore took a pass from freshman Taylor Herndon and made a nifty move going to the net before he backhanded the puck behind Faulkner.
“(Gaede) has had a lot of opportunities, and it just hasn’t fallen for him,” Hastings said. “But he’s an honest player. That goal did as much for our bench, at a really important time, as anything. Not just scoring the goal but who scored it.”
The fourth-line wing said he hasn’t been too worried about not scoring.
“All I care about is making sure I don’t get scored on,” he said. “The goals will come. …
“As long as we play as a family, four lines deep, everyone on the same page, I don’t see another team beating us.”
Omaha picked up the pace in the second period and had 13 shots on Stephon Williams. The freshman goalie finished the game with 26 saves, stopping two breakaways in the process.
Omaha’s only goal came with 1:17 left in the second period when Josh Archibald’s shot from the wall deflected off Dominic Zombo’s skates and slid through the goalie’s pads, making it a 2-1 game going into the third.
Minnesota State, however, has learned to take a punch, and it countered with its first full power play of the game at 4:30 of the final frame.
Leitner fired in a beautiful backhand pass from Jean-Paul LaFontaine, who faked out the defense with a move behind the goal line. Eriah Hayes also assisted on the goal.
“Matt Leitner has got a lot of will,” Hastings said. “(He’s a) prideful kid, and I’m really happy for him because he went the extra mile tonight. … We need those guys to be difference makers if we’re going to do anything here going forward.”
With the win, Minnesota State also may have secured a berth into the NCAA tournament as it moved up to No. 10 in the Pairwise Rankings Sunday night.
Nebraska Omaha 0-1-0—1
Minnesota State 2-0-1—3
Scoring: 1. MSU-Gervais 8 (Grant 12, Leitner 28) 8:23; 2. MSU-Gaede 1 (Herndon 3, Lehrke 17) 13:45.
Scoring: 3. UNO-Zombo 12 (Archibald 17, Walters 30) 18:43
Scoring: 4. MSU-Leitner 17 (LaFaontaine 24, Hayes 16) ppg 4:30
Penalties: Leitner, MSU (tripping) :24; Zombo, UNO (slashing) :30; Archibald, UNO (roughing) 3:17; Montpetit, UNO (holding) 14:45; Nelson, MSU (cross-checking) 14:45; Elbrecht, MSU (high-sticking) 15:18; Seeler, UNO (high-sticking) 16:48
Shots on goal: UNO 3-13-11—27. MSU 12-11-12—35. Penalties: UNO 4 for 8 minutes; MSU 3 for 6 minutes. Power-play opportunities. UNO 0 for 2; MSU 1 for 3. Goalie saves: UNO Faulkner 10-11-11—32 (3 GA); MSU Williams 3-12-11—26 (1 GA)
UNO called its timeout at 16:27 of the first period. MSU called its timeout at 14:13 of the third period.
Referees: Brian Thul, Tom Sterns. Linesmen: Nick Bradshaw, Sam Shikowsky