For all of the hard work that college hockey players put in in the offseason and throughout this fall and winter, the rewards have been few and far between.

No. 5-ranked Minnesota State has played just five games so far, while having an equal number canceled or postponed. The Mavericks have made the most of those opportunities, going 3-1-1 so far, but even with the success, the lack of games begins to take some kind of mental toll after a while.

“That’s why we came to school here, that’s why we play the sport of hockey, we want to play in competitions,” MSU senior alternate captain Dallas Gerads said this week. “It’s getting a little old just having practice, practice, practice.

“It’s nice we got those first five in and we’re really looking forward to every weekend.”

Minnesota State Mankato junior forward Dallas Gerads
Minnesota State Mankato junior forward Dallas Gerads

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MSU hopes that, beginning today, their season will finally have a feel of normalcy. There still won’t be fans in the seats, there still will be regular COVID testing (WCHA Return to Competition protocols require players to be tested three times per week), but the Mavericks are hopeful that they will be on the ice twice every weekend for the next two-plus months.

That stretch begins at 5:07 p.m. today when MSU opens WCHA play at Northern Michigan in the first game of a two-game series.

“Right now, the importance of games can’t be overstated because there’s just not a lot of them,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. “We’re going to try to start our book of business and ride it to the point where, at the end of the (regular season) we can have an opportunity to move on. That’ll come in its due time. This weekend has been on our minds for quite a while.”

MSU has no open dates on its calendar between now and the end of the season. Previously open weekends have been filled with scheduled games -- at home against Alabama Huntsville on Jan. 28-29, and at Ferris State on Feb. 19-20.

“We just talk with one another and know how fortunate we are that we get to play,” Gerads said. “There are other schools out there right now that are not playing at all. Division III isn’t playing and other Division I schools aren’t playing.

“... how lucky we are that we get to come to the rink every day and get out and do what we love. We realize we’re blessed and try to make the best of every opportunity we get.”

Here’s a look at this weekend’s series:

The Games

Who: No. 5 Minnesota State at Northern Michigan, WCHA openers

When: Saturday, 5:07 p.m.; Sunday, 3:07 p.m.

Where: Berry Events Center (capacity 4,260); Marquette, Mich.

Records: MSU 0-0-0 WCHA, 3-1-1 overall; Northern Michigan 0-0-0, 2-2-0

Follow along: Live blog at TheRinkLive.com; live streaming at FloHockey.TV; radio, 1420-AM KTOE

Hirose honored

MSU-Mankato freshman defenseman Akito Hirose
MSU-Mankato freshman defenseman Akito Hirose

Freshman defenseman Akito Hirose has stepped in seamlessly to a top-four role on the Mavericks’ defensive corps this season, as has fellow freshman blue-liner Jake Livingstone. Hirose has not only been a steady presence during five-on-five play, he’s seen time on the penalty kill and has quarterbacked one of MSU’s power-play units.

He was named WCHA Rookie of the Week after the Mavericks earned a win and a tie at home against Bemidji State on Dec. 18-19. This week, Hirose was named the WCHA Rookie of the Month for December. He had three assists and a plus-2 plus-minus rating in four games in December, with 11 shots on goal and two blocked shots.

An ‘extra’ presence

MSU’s leading scorer is somewhat of a surprise. Sophomore Cade Borchardt has seized his opportunity to be in the lineup on a nightly basis, with six points through the team’s first five games.

Borchardt was recruited to be a scorer, but he played in just 10 games last season as a freshman. MSU was loaded with veteran scorers and playmakers, and had a top-six forward group that was tough to crack.

The Burnsville native has been listed as the Mavericks’ extra skater in three of their five games. On the line chart, it may appear as though he is the 13th forward, a guy who’s in the lineup because teams are allowed to dress 19 skaters.

That’s far from the truth, Hastings said.

“We’ve been fortunate throughout our time here, (associated head coach) Todd Knott, our recruiting coordinator, has given me an opportunity as a head coach to have some depth with our forward group,” Hastings said, “and we’ve used that extra skater (spot) as someone who’s a person who can do anything, play in our top six or bottom six.”

Cade Borchardt
Cade Borchardt

Borchardt has shown that versatility, being able to instantly plug into any of the Mavericks’ four lines during a game and understand his role. He’s also been relied upon on both the power play and penalty kill.

“When someone isn’t ‘going’ on one of our top four lines, it’s really easy to move someone like Cade into that position and give him that opportunity,” Hastings said. “He’s taken advantage of it. It provides some flexibility and you hope it doesn’t provide anxiety for the other 12 (forwards).

“You want guys to play with pace, with an edge, but also with some comfort and the idea they’ll continue to get their opportunities. But Cade has taken advantage of that opportunity and has been very productive for us.”

Links from the Rinks

• MSU alternate captain Dallas Gerads, a senior forward, has earned every opportunity he’s gotten in hockey, not just as a Maverick, but throughout his high school career at Blaine, and his junior hockey career, as well.

• In this week’s “Mavericks In Focus” we look at questions that MSU is looking to answer in the second “half” of the season, a reason why the Mavericks could be more explosive offensively as they get into conference play, this week’s The Rink Live WCHA Power Rankings, and a look at the MSU women’s hockey team, which opens the post-holiday break portion of its schedule this weekend at home against No. 1 Wisconsin.

• Long-time MSU beat writer Shane Frederick has some notes on this weekend’s series in his Puckato blog. He also takes us back five years to when Miracle On Ice teammates Mark Johnson (Wisconsin) and John Harrington (MSU) met for the first time as college head coaches. Those guys’ teams go head-to-head again this weekend in Mankato.

• The official press releases with stats and notes from Minnesota State and Northern Michigan for this weekend’s series.

• Steve Brownlee, the sports editor of the Daily Mining Journal in Marquette, has a look at Northern Michigan’s busy week. The Wildcats rallied from three goals down to beat Ferris State in OT on Wednesday, before returning home for this weekend’s series against MSU.

• MSU is No. 6 in this week's CollegeHockeyNews.com's Power 16. The Mavericks are one of two WCHA teams in the rankings, with Bowling Green at No. 8.

Last Meeting

Minnesota State swept Northern Michigan 7-3 and 1-0 at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato on Feb. 7-8, 2020. Jared Spooner, Walker Duehr, Reggie Lutz, Charlie Gerard, Edwin Hookenson, Julian Napravnik, Connor Mackey and Parker Tuomie all had two-point games in the series opener. Dryden McKay recorded a 22-save shutout in the series finale, and Spooner scored the game’s lone goal midway through the first period.

The last time the Mavericks played at Northern Michigan -- Dec. 13-14, 2019 -- the teams split a two-game series. MSU won the first game 5-2, and Northern Michigan won the rematch 4-1.

Head-to-Head

Records: Minnesota State 3-1-1, Northern Michigan 2-2-0

National ranking: MSU No. 5 USCHO.com poll, No. 5 USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll; Northern Michigan is unranked

Goals per game (national rank): MSU 2.80 (25th); NMU 3.75 (9th).

Goals against per game (national rank): MSU 1.60 (T-3rd); 4.00 (44th)

Power play (national rank): MSU 3-for-13, 23.1 pct. (17th); NMU 4-for-12, 33.3 pct. (1st)

Penalty kill (national rank): MSU 14-for-17, 82.4 pct. (20th); NMU 11-for-13, 84.6 pct. (15th)

Shots on goal per game (national rank): MSU 37.8 (4th); NMU 29.5 (T-27th)

Shots allowed per game (national rank): MSU 21.6 (1st); 32.75 (33rd)

Historical Data

Minnesota State and Northern Michigan first played during the 2013-14 season. The Mavericks hold a 16-5-3 all-time record against the Wildcats, including a 6-3-3 mark in games played in Marquette. This weekend’s games are the only scheduled meetings of this season between the teams. MSU is 7-3-0 in its past 10 games against Northern Michigan (home team in all caps):

Feb. 8, 2020: MINNESOTA STATE 1, Northern Michigan 0

Feb. 7, 2020: MINNESOTA STATE 7, Northern Michigan 3

Dec. 14, 2019: NORTHERN MICHIGAN 4, Minnesota State 1

Dec. 13, 2019: Minnesota State 5, NORTHERN MICHIGAN 2

Jan. 26, 2019: Minnesota State 8, NORTHERN MICHIGAN 2

Jan. 25, 2019: Minnesota State 3, NORTHERN MICHIGAN 2

Dec. 30, 2017: MINNESOTA STATE 6, Northern Michigan 3

Dec. 29, 2017: Northern Michigan 4, MINNESOTA STATE 3

Nov. 4, 2017: NORTHERN MICHIGAN 4, Minnesota State 1

Nov. 3, 2017: Minnesota State 3, NORTHERN MICHIGAN 0

Scouting the Wildcats

The Wildcats are in a stretch of three games in five days. They rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Ferris State 6-5 in overtime on Wednesday, as Joseph Nardi scored with 34 seconds to go in the extra session.

Both of the Wildcats’ victories this season have come against winless Ferris State, and both by one goal. NMU was swept by rival Michigan Tech on Dec. 18-19, 4-3 and 3-1.

The Wildcats are scheduled to play six consecutive games against ranked opponents, starting with this weekend’s set against No. 5 Minnesota State. Northern hosts No. 19 Lake Superior next weekend, then travels to No. 7 Bowling Green Jan. 15-16.

Northern Michigan features the WCHA’s top-returning scorer, junior forward Griffin Loughran, who scored 23 goals and had 39 total points as a sophomore last season. Loughran was voted to the Preseason Media All-WCHA Team and was second to MSU goalie Dryden McKay in Presaeson WCHA Player of the Year voting.

Sophomore forward AJ Vanderbeck leads NMU in scoring through its first four games, with five goals and two assists. His 1.33 points per game average is 12th-best in the country.

Ice Chips…

• All eight WCHA teams that are playing in 2020-21 are in action today and Sunday, and all four series are in Michigan. Bowling Green plays at Ferris State, Alabama Huntsville plays at Michigan Tech, and Bemidji State is at Lake Superior State.

• The next shutout recorded by MSU goalie Dryden McKay will be the 17th of his career, which will tie him for eighth place in NCAA history, along with Minnesota Duluth’s Hunter Shepherd.

• McKay is 5-0-0 all-time against Northern Michigan, with a 1.66 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and one shutout.