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'D' doing its job for No. 3-ranked Minnesota State

Minnesota State's defensive corps is led by two senior captains and a handful of others who have filled their roles perfectly this season. The Mavericks are allowing -- by a wide margin -- the fewest shots on goal per game in the country.

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Minnesota State defenseman Jake Livingstone (23) holds his ground in front of the MSU net against Bowling Green's Sam Craggs (25), as Mavericks goalie Dryden McKay makes a save during a WCHA game at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center on Feb. 5, 2021. (Jason Wachter / The Rink Live)

Dryden McKay often says that shutouts are a “team statistic.”

The Minnesota State junior goalie points to the guys in front of him as proof.

There’s Wyatt Aamodt, a sophomore who is second on the team in blocked shots (22) and who took a slapshot to the head that cracked his helmet while helping to preserve MSU’s 4-0 shutout against Ferris State on Jan. 23.

There’s Andy Carroll, a junior Jack-of-all-trades who is as effective in front of his own net on a penalty kill as he is running the point on a power play or as he is at five-on-five.

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There are freshmen Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone, who thanks to parallel stellar careers in the British Columbia Hockey League that led them to MSU at the same time, will likely be talked about in the same breath throughout their run as Mavericks, even though they’re rarely on the ice at the same time.

The talented rookies have been thrown right into the Division I deep end and have played in every game this season. They lead MSU’s defensemen in scoring, Hirose with 11 points and Livingstone with eight.

And then there are the veterans, seniors Riese Zmolek and Jack McNeely. Both wear letters. Both have played in close to 120 games as Mavericks. Zmolek leads the team in blocked shots (23), McNeely is third (21).

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Minnesota State Mankato defenseman Jack McNeely

They’re both paired with a freshman — Zmolek with Livingstone, McNeely with Hirose — and serve as on-ice assistant coaches in a way. That, said MSU associate head coach Todd Knott, is what makes them so invaluable.

“We talk about it all the time as a group,” Knott said last week. “It’s amazing. I’m down there with them (the defensemen) during the game and I don’t have to say much, let’s put it that way.

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“Between Riese playing with Livingstone and Akito with McNeely, those guys have a lot of respect for each other both ways. It does unbelievable things for the development of of those young players when it doesn’t have to be coaches saying something all the time. They’re relying on the old guys.”

McKay — who last week broke the WCHA career record for shutouts — gets a bulk of the attention, and rightfully so. He is putting up historically good numbers, with a 0.79 goals-against average and a .959 save percentage. He has more shutouts than non-shutouts — eight in 14 starts — this season for the No. 3-ranked Mavericks (13-2-1 overall), who play a non-conference series Friday and Saturday at Ferris State.

But McKay’s numbers are just a part of what makes MSU so overwhelmingly dominant defensively.

The Mavericks are a puck-possession team; it’s difficult to take the puck away from them and difficult to keep it away from them. That starts with the defensive corps, which gives very little time or space to opposing puck carriers.

By a wide margin, MSU allows the fewest shots on goal per game in the country, at 18.69. The next closest is American International, which allows 22.75 shots per game. MSU’s 1.06 goals allowed per game is also far and away the best mark in the country; Minnesota and Quinnipiac are tied for second at 1.86.

Carroll, in his third season at MSU, said the Mavericks’ coaching staff has done a good job of making sure there is a good mix of veterans and young defensemen within the program, making for seamless transitions when older players leave and younger players are elevated into bigger roles. The junior pointed to the success that Hirose and Livingstone are having this season.

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Minnesota State defenseman Andy Carroll states with the puck against Benidji State during the first period of the Mariucci Classic Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, at the 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn. Jason Wachter/The Rink Live

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“I remember, going all the way back to my freshman year, with Wyatt and I, the entire coaching staff does a great job of providing us with the opportunity to come in and succeed,” said Carroll, who has two goals and seven points this season. “Obviously, Akito and Jake have stepped in and been big for us this year in all situations. They’ve been a huge part of our team so far."

The young players have had strong role models on the ice and in the locker room, too. Zmolek was elected by his teammates as the Mavericks’ captain this season, and McNeely is an assistant captain. Zmolek’s role has expanded this season to fill any and every possible role a defenseman can take on, from killing penalties to quarterbacking the top power-play unit.

“He just has a lot of qualities you want in your captain,” McNeely said of Zmolek. “On the ice, he’s a really dependable player who plays in all situations for us. If you ask coach, he’s probably the guy he’d want on the ice the whole game if he could. He’s just always dependable and makes the right play.

“He plays hard defensively and he’s not a guy who really has to say a whole lot in the locker room. He’s really respected by everybody and he’s a great teammate.”

Perhaps nobody in the Mavericks’ locker room appreciates the defensive corps as a whole more than McKay.

“Those shutouts are team shutouts,” McKay said late last month. “There haven’t been any I can think of that I’ve had to do all by myself, that’s for sure. … It’s the whole team (blocking shots). We see guys blocking shots with 30 seconds left in a 4-0 game. I definitely appreciate that.”

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