By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
I talked to Tyler Elbrecht’s parents during Minnesota State’s regular-season finale against North Dakota. They hinted that it would be the final time they would be making the trip from St. Louis to Mankato to watch their son, a senior defenseman, play at the Verizon Wireless Center.
But on Friday, about 45 minutes before the Mavericks’ home playoff game against Nebraska Omaha, there were the Elbrechts once again, walking through the arena concourse.
They simply couldn’t stay away.
It just goes to show how much this past weekend’s series — and winning it — meant to the Minnesota State men’s hockey program. That includes its players, coaches, fans and families.
Three games later, the Mavericks qualified for the WCHA Final Five for the first time since the end of the 2002-03 season and likely locked up a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota State got to the Final Five twice in their first four seasons in the WCHA, so many thought it would be a regular occurrence.
Over the last decade, the Mavericks got oh-so-close four times, winning the Friday-night game in overtime and needing to win one more game to get to St. Paul.
But they couldn’t close, falling at Minnesota Duluth in 2004, at North Dakota in ’06, at home against Minnesota in ’08 and at St. Cloud State in ’10.
Even last year, MSU nearly forced a third game but got swept out in another crushing loss, one in a double-overtime thriller at Duluth.
On Friday, Minnesota State beat Omaha 4-3 in overtime but lost 2-1 on Saturday, and it was hard not to be reminded of those previous series — and seasons — over the last nine years that ended in a pair of disappointing losses.
But as we’ve seen throughout this season, this has been a very different Minnesota State team.
From first-year coach Mike Hastings to captains like Elbrecht and Eriah Hayes, from the emergence of Matt Leitner as an elite player to the sparkling goaltending of rookie Stephon Williams, the Mavericks have been too strong a team to simply see their season end with an as-usual whimper.
“We’ll figure it out,” center Jean-Paul LaFontaine said after Saturday’s loss.
Minnesota State did, coming out with great energy on Sunday, playing, as Hastings said, its best period in about a month.
If the Mavericks took a punch on Saturday, they countered with a combination the next day that stunned and staggered Omaha. They delivered the knockout blow in the third period with a Leitner power-play goal early and a Williams save on a breakaway late.
When it was over, it was clear that the Elbrechts weren’t just making the nine-hour journey just to see their son’s hockey game. They came here to see something special.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.