Minnesota State, Michigan Tech to fight over McNaughton Cup in Mankato
A few roadbumps throughout the season for Minnesota State and Michigan Tech's rise to the top have a showdown for the conference title brewing this weekend.
MANKATO, Minn. — Early in the season, it wasn’t obvious which teams were going to be in contention for the MacNaughton Cup.
Minnesota State – winners of five straight league titles spanning both the WCHA and the CCHA – had struggled early, not quite playing up to the high standards fans were used to seeing from the Mavericks.
Michigan Tech, meanwhile, wasn’t picked to finish anywhere near the top of the standings when the season started. Even head coach Joe Shawhan was unsure about what he had going into the 2022-23 campaign.
As the season wore on, the picture became even more muddled. There were a number of teams that had a legitimate shot at the league title, and at the holiday break, four teams emerged as contenders, all within two points of the top: Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Bowling Green.
And now, thanks in part to an outstanding stretch of nearly-flawless hockey for both teams, that number has been whittled down to two as the CCHA season enters its final weekend. League-leading Minnesota State will host Michigan Tech Friday and Saturday in Mankato with the MacNaughton Cup on the line. The Mavericks lead the Huskies by two points, which means both teams could still hoist the cup.
“I would have never thought we’d be going into this with the chance of bringing the MacNaughton Cup home,” Shawhan said on his weekly radio show on Monday. “We’re in that position now, and we had a really good week of practice last week, so we’ll see how that translates and we’ll see how this week of practice goes. It should be a lot of fun.”
The Huskies (21-8-4, 14-6-4 CCHA) have already taken four points from the Mavericks (20-11-1, 15-8-1 CCHA) once this season, and that number of points would be what Tech would require for the two teams to share the Cup. Because the Huskies own the tiebreaker, they would be the No. 1 seed in the CCHA playoffs in that scenario. To win the title outright, they need at least one win in regulation and an overtime or shootout victory. The Mavericks, meanwhile, can win the title outright with a regulation win in either game.
Both teams have been red-hot since the calendar turned to 2023. MSU is 10-2 while Tech is 9-2-1.
Hastings said his team – which was in third place at the holiday break and coming off a sweep at the hands of Bemidji State – needed that time away. Since then, the Mavericks have been refocused and have looked nearly-unbeatable. They came back from the games against Bemidji focused, and started 2023 with a road sweep of Northern Michigan in Marquette.
“I credit our leadership group for coming back with a fresh, refocused attitude on our dailies and not worrying about outside noise that we don’t control. I thought they did a good job in investing in themselves and in the group,” Hastings said. “Started off at Northern, and that was a very big weekend for us because coming off of just getting swept and looking at the amount of road games we had in the second half, it was important to focus on what we had in front of us at that time, because if we would have gone big picture at that time, it might have seemed a little much.”
Since the start of 2023, their only two defeats have been in overtime against a pair of instate rivals in St. Thomas and Bemidji State.
“Mankato lost some games early, but they always schedule as tough a nonconference schedule as you can going into the year,” Shawhawn said of the Mavericks. “This year they lost a few of those games early, and that set them back a little bit, but it really set the tempo for their leadership. They’ve been as consistent as any team in the country through the last two-thirds of the year. You watch them play, you’re fighting for everything you get.”
The Huskies have also been outstanding in 2023, and goaltender Blake Pietila has had as much to do with that as anything. The Mike Richter Award semifinalist has a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and eight shutouts.
Hastings said the Huskies are very dangerous, because of how well their style of play compliments Pietila.
“I think if you look at both teams, they both survive a little bit on their overall identity as defending. Both teams defend as a group of five really well. But it’s hard to get consistent offensive zone time against Tech,” he said. “They’re one of the best teams we will see all season at exiting with numbers and breaking pucks out of their own end. And if you do get that time, Pietila is so good. He’s technically sound, he’s aggressive when he needs to be aggressive, he’s incredibly calm between the posts. He’s quality. I have a lot of respect for the young man, not just how he’s played but also what (Shawhan) and his staff have done as a group with a new roster, a lot of turnover, and I think (Pietila) has been a big part of it.”
When the two teams met in Houghton earlier this season, Tech won 3-2 on Friday night and the Mavericks forced a tie and won the shootout for the extra point on Saturday night. Expect another set of close games this weekend.
“Virtually every game in the past couple years has been a one-goal game, or maybe a two-goal game with the goalie out,” Shawhan said of Tech’s battles with MSU. “It’s always hard-fought, it's always competitive.”