The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

March 11, 2013

Frederick: Minnesota State hockey team has come a long way

— Jean-Paul LaFontaine sat on the boards in front of the Minnesota State bench after practice on Monday and soaked in the season for a few minutes.

With a few of his teammates lingering on the Verizon Wireless Center ice, working on passing and shooting, the sophomore forward was asked about the last 12 months.

“Honestly, after last year, I had no idea we’d be here,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d come this far.”

“Here” would be a fourth-place finish in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and in preparations for a home playoff series. The Mavericks will host Nebraska Omaha this weekend for a chance to advance to the Final Five for the first time in a decade.

“This far” would be a record-setting season with a Division I era-best 22 victories overall and 16 in conference play, as well as a good chance to get invited to the NCAA tournament after the WCHA tournament.

Last April, when Mike Hastings was hired to coach, many observers thought the Mavericks had a shot at home ice and a chance to advance to St. Paul.

Between the new coach’s resume and returning players like LaFontaine, Matt Leitner and Eriah Hayes and what — on paper, anyway — appeared to be a pretty good recruiting class, folks certainly thought MSU would be better than the cellar-dwelling 11th-place team it had been the previous two years.

But with a 1-5 start in league play — even with one of those wins being against Minnesota — it seemed like maybe it would take a little more time than that.

“Once we started really buying in to what (Hastings) was saying, we started to be successful,” LaFontaine said. “That seven-game winning streak (in November and December) was fun to be a part of.”

That streak got MSU into the upper half, and it went 12-6-1 overall over the second half of the season. On Saturday night, the Mavericks clinched the fourth spot in the standings and what would end up being the sixth seed for the playoffs with a thrilling 2-1 overtime victory over fifth-ranked North Dakota.

LaFontaine set up the game-winning goal with a perfect backdoor pass to freshman Brett Knowles, and the play started with some hard work along the boards by Eriah Hayes.

Making it that much better for Minnesota State, it happened in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 5,088. It was the second crowd of more than 5,000 this year, a figure last touched in 2008-09.

Now, the Mavericks’ goal is to use its home-ice advantage to advance to the Final Five and, from there, the national tournament.

“We seriously have a chance to make some history here,” LaFontaine said.

Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.

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