Minnesota State finds its groove with Keenan Rancier's turnaround in net
Sophomore goaltender has been stellar as Mavericks prepare to host Ferris State in Mason Cup semifinal
MANKATO, Minn. — Minnesota State began the men's hockey season on a roller coaster, riding the highs and lows of a team that needed to solidify new personnel into key roles, including at the goaltender position.
Hobey Baker Award winner Dryden McKay and his NCAA-record 34 shutouts were gone. So was 50-point scorer Nathan Smith and 49-point scorer Julian Napravnik, plus three steady defensemen that helped protect McKay’s net.
For more than three seasons, McKay’s nameplate and the crossbar were never more than a few feet apart.
So when sophomore Keenan Rancier returned this fall, he had just two appearances and an 0-1 record. Head coach Mike Hastings already had Andrew Miller, who didn’t see action last season, and brought in Alex Tracy, fresh off a playoff MVP performance in the USHL’s Clark Cup with Sioux City, as well.
After swapping starts with Tracy early this season, Rancier has started the last 16 games and leads the Mavericks into the Mason Cup semifinals at home against Ferris State at 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
“Since Day 1, I've always had to earn it,” Rancier said. “That's kind of been the philosophy of our team is that you’re never given anything. You’ve always got to earn your opportunity.”
It was their own rocky 10-9-1 start that caught the attention of the Mavericks by the holiday break. Rancier’s numbers weren’t great either, with a 2.26 goals-against average, a .901 save percentage and a 4-6-1 record.
We came in after Christmas with a work hat on and work boots and we really went to work after that break.
Going 1-3 against Minnesota and St. Cloud State might not have upset too many stomachs early on in Mankato, but a four-game winless streak and a sweep by Bemidji State on home ice at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center (the first Beavers' sweep since 2006) left many in knots by Christmas.
Since the break however, Rancier has been lights out. And as goaltenders go, in most cases, so does the team.
“We couldn't change what happened in the past and the position we were sitting in isn't where we wanted to be,” Rancier said. “We came in after Christmas with a work hat on and work boots and we really went to work after that break. So I think it was a good mental reset for all of us.”
He’s 13-3-0 since the break and has dropped his goals-against to 1.80, second in the nation to Quinnipiac sophomore Yaniv Perets’ 1.55.
Mavericks junior defenseman Akito Hirose said the team began focusing more on keeping the puck out of its own net instead of putting the puck in the other team's net.
"Obviously, our goaltending has really stabilized us back there, which you need, especially having Dryden my first two years." Hirose said on the Maverick Hockey Live Podcast. "You kind of get the same feeling about this time, especially with Keener stabilizing everything."
Rancier may not have the consistency of his predecessor, McKay, who seemingly concocted a shutout every other start during his career. Of the 18 goaltenders in the nation with 17 more wins this season, Rancier (17-9-1) and Michigan’s Erik Portello have the fewest shutouts with one, and none, respectively.
Last month, Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings said he didn't envy the position his goaltenders were in taking over for McKay.
"I like what Keenan Rancier has done over the second half," Hastings said. "He's came in and kind of took the ball and ran with it."
Wyatt Waselenchuk, his goalie coach when Rancier played for the Minot Minotauros of the NAHL, said any lack in size and quickness is countered by Rancier's work ethic and technical ability.
“He’s a model student of the game," Waselenchuk said.
That preparation has helped Rancier avoid those disasterous, confidence-eroding starts. In 27 games, he’s allowed no more than three goals in six of those appearances. That's part Rancier, part Minnesota State’s stingy defensive structure. As Waselenchuk puts it — “I've never seen anything like it, like it's unbelievable” — the low number of shots the Mavericks allow.
Minnesota State is second in the nation in shots allowed per game (20.9).
The Mavericks are last in the CCHA (by a good margin) in blocks (9.75 per game). In a series sweep of Lake Superior State in last weekend’s Mason Cup quarterfinals, Rancier faced just 18 shots in each contest.
“Our team does a really good job defensively keeping pucks away from the house, so not a lot of Grade A’s,” Rancier said of opponent scoring opportunities. “Our coaches are very hard on them blocking shots and defending hard. So they help me out immensely. It's incredible the defensive ability that our team has.”
It’s the same heavy defense that helped the Mavericks reach the NCAA championship game last season.
Keenan says🙅♂️‼️— CCHA (@CCHAHockey) January 7, 2023
Big time save from Rancier to keep @MinnStMHockey up by two!
🎥: https://t.co/yRw1IaFf0i#CCHAHockey pic.twitter.com/BwErTKbY6c
Getting to Mankato
Waselenchuk recalls Rancier had yet to receive an NCAA Division I offer, so the Minot coach called Minnesota State assistant coach Todd Knott and started selling him on the goaltender, saying “Hey, you know what, I know that you have Dryden down there, but this kid is special, man, and he'll do whatever it takes, and he's as good a teammate as you could ever imagine.”
Soon the Victoria, British Columbia, netminder, who posted a 20-18-5 record and carried a 3.32 GAA with the Minotauros, was on his way to southern Minnesota.
Waselenchuk recalls the 2021 Robertson Cup playoff series when Minot played Aberdeen. Rancier stopped 223 of 244 shots (.914) in the epic five-game series, which was decided by a 4-3 Wings overtime win.
In Game 3, Rancier stopped 69 of 71 shots in a double-overtime contest, then came back with 38 saves and 46 saves the next two games. That’s when Waselenchuk knew for sure Rancier was ready for the college game.
The biggest hurdle for Rancier may have been taking over for McKay. At times last season, Waselenchuk said Rancier didn’t want to disrupt the senior goaltender. His former coach kept urging him to be confident and show others he belongs at the college level.
Rancier has relied on those talks with Waselenchuk and Mavericks volunteer goalie coach Cory Lonke, who previously worked with the Minotauros.
“Those two guys I’ve been lucky to have and its just very coincidental that they obviously both had some time in Minot,” Rancier said.
Rancier no longer has to zip though game tape trying to find situations. The video capabilities at Minnesota State allow him to see goals, saves, power-play setups and other unique situations much faster than his junior days.
“I can tell you that he knows all 21 skaters he's going to be playing against or however many they're dressing,” Waselenchuk said.
Rancier ties his work ethic to his faith, often bringing up Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”
“Every day I wake up asking myself how can I work wholeheartedly every single day? A lot of it is studying and I've been blessed with this gift that I have right now and I just want to do the best I can with it.”