The Mankato Free Press
---- — No one said it would be easy, right?
Well, perhaps there’s been an assumption.
The Minnesota State men’s hockey team is 0-2, having opened the season with a pair of losses at Providence on Friday and Saturday.
It was a matchup of teams highly touted in the preseason. The Mavericks, the favorites to win the WCHA, entered with a No. 11 ranking. The Friars, expected to be among the top teams in a tough Hockey East conference were No. 14.
That Providence swept the series shouldn’t be a shocker. That it won the two games by a combined score of 8-1 is.
That Minnesota State spent so much time in the penalty box was a surprise, as was impotency of its power play, which went scoreless over the weekend, even with the country’s best power-play point man, Matt Leitner, back.
The Friars found ways to get the puck by the WCHA’s best goaltender from last year, Stephon Williams. The Mavericks couldn’t solve Hockey East’s best goalie, Jon Gillies.
It’s very early, of course, and perhaps the weekend might have been a perfectly timed shock to the Mavericks’ system.
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding this year’s team — hype this writer certainly has contributed two over the last six months — and the players may have believed it all. One of the big questions going into the season was just how, exactly, a program that has never had so much preseason attention was going handle the rankings and accolades.
With Leitner, Williams and several other excellent players back from last season, the Mavericks were the easy choice to put at the top of new-look WCHA in the preseason guessing game. But if anyone thought that league was going to be a light skate with the Big Ten and NCHC teams gone, they better take a look at some of opening weekend’s results.
Bemidji State opened the season at St. Cloud State and played a pair of close games, losing 3-2 and tying 2-2. (The Beavers actually won Saturday’s game in a shootout.) Michigan Tech did the same at Minnesota Duluth by scores of 2-1 and 1-1.
Alaska Anchorage is 2-0, winning its own tournament and beating Quinnipiac, who played in the national-title game last April, along the way.
Recall the days when Minnesota State sat at the bottom of the standings yet made life difficult for the teams at the top. WCHA teams will be gunning for the Mavericks now.
Connecticut comes to town this weekend, but before you dismiss that Atlantic Hockey team (this Huskies are moving to Hockey East next season), remember that Bentley went to Nebraska Omaha and stunned the red Mavericks Friday night, winning 6-4, before dropping the series finale 4-2. Sacred Heart went to Massachusetts Lowell and gave the Red Hawks a very early exit from the top spot in the national polls with a 2-1 win.
MSU coach Mike Hastings said the Mavericks — now ranked 18th in the country — competed better in Saturday’s penalty-fest than they did in Friday’s opener. They had 38 shots on goal as opposed to 26 the night before. But he reserved his individual praise for his rookie players — Zach Stepan, Jordan Nelson, Carter Foguth among them — not the returners, who will need to be better, much better.
Perhaps having the hype machine shut down for awhile will be the best thing for the Mavericks.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.