By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
When they met back in November, Minnesota was ranked No. 2 in the nation, and Minnesota State was still trying to figure out where exactly it might fit into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Two and a half months later, the Gophers are No. 1, and the 14th-ranked Mavericks have put themselves right in the middle of the race, giving this weekend’s rematch quite a bit more weight than previous games between the two teams.
Senior co-captain Eriah Hayes said the Mavericks are approaching the series as they would any other weekend. Still ...
“Obviously, we’re playing the Gophers, so we’ll have a little extra hop,” he said. “It’s a little different than the last time we met. ... Us being both ranked adds to it this weekend. There’s a little more on the line, so it should be really fun.”
Tonight’s game is at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, and on Saturday, the series shifts to Mankato’s Verizon Wireless Center where, as is usually the case when Minnesota travels south, a sellout crowd is expected.
The Mavericks are tied for sixth place in the WCHA standings but are just three points behind the first-place Gophers with 10 league games remaining.
“Every game is huge, especially when the race is so tight,” Hayes said. “It’s a huge weekend in the WCHA, and the Gopher aspect adds something to it.”
Minnesota State also sits in 15th place in the Pairwise Rankings, which determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
“With them being No. 1 and us being 14th (in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll), it’s a huge weekend for us,” MSU’s other co-captain, Tyler Elbrecht, said. “It could help us in the rankings, the WCHA and the Pairwise. ... Obviously, it’s great because the community loves it when we play the Gophers, but if we take care of business, it helps us in both areas.”
The two teams split their November series, with the Mavericks winning 5-3 in Mankato. Since then, MSU is 12-5-1 and Minnesota is 12-1-4.
“I think they’re a good hockey team, and I think we’re a good hockey team,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. “It’s a chance for us to garner points and continue to take steps. If you look at us since the beginning of the year, we want to get better. This is a tremendous challenge for many different reasons.”
The first series between the two teams marked Hastings’ seventh and eighth games with his new team. Since then, he said, players’ roles are more solidified, and the Mavericks have become a better all-around defensive team. The latter is especially true on the penalty kill. The Gophers scored four power-play goals against MSU in November, but the Mavericks have allowed just four others in the 18 games since.
“We’ve just got to play pretty good defensively against (the Gophers),” senior defenseman Evan Mosey said. “They’re really good offensively. If we can contain them and limit their chances on power plays and have a good penalty kill, I think we’ll be all right.”