Zmolek brothers on opposite sides of battle this weekend for CCHA title
Rochester natives Bennett Zmolek and Will Zmolek's teams will go head to head for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association postseason championship on Saturday in Mankato.
Bennett Zmolek had an up-and-down start to his college hockey career.
The former Rochester Century standout defenseman was in and out of the lineup early in the season for No. 1-ranked Minnesota State University, Mankato.
It was one of the rare times — if ever — in his playing career that Zmolek wasn’t in the lineup on a consistent basis.
The good news, though? Zmolek has a support system unlike most college hockey players.
He was able to lean on older brothers Will — a junior defenseman for Bemidji State University — and Riese, who played the past four seasons at MSU and now is playing professionally in the Minnesota Wild minor-league system.
“We talked a lot early in the season,” Will Zmolek said this week. “I told him just to stick with it, to trust the process.”
Bennett soaked in the advice from his big brothers. He was patient through the season’s first month, quietly battling in practice every day and earning his ice time.
Beginning with a home-and-home series against Central Collegiate Hockey Association rival St. Thomas in mid-November, Bennett was in the Mavericks’ lineup for 21 of their next 22 games.
“I know how good of a player he is, so I wasn’t surprised,” Will said. “I was very proud of him, the way he stepped in. He’s been really good for them. He’s stepped in and done his job.”
Bennett, who was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team, will unfortunately be on the sidelines Saturday — he’s missed the past month with an injury — when older brother Will and his Bemidji State team visit Mankato for the CCHA playoff championship game.
“At the beginning of the year, I’d text and talk with Riese and Will a lot, asking a lot of questions,” said Bennett, who has two goals, seven points and 23 blocked shots in 28 games this season. “Now it’s a lot of conversations with my teammates, a great bunch of guys. But I know I can go to Riese and Will anytime. I’m lucky to have them.”
‘We’re clicking right now’
There may not be a lot of conversation between the brothers this week.
Saturday’s game is an important one to both teams, for different reasons.
Minnesota State is 34-5-0 overall and — if it hasn’t already — will lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a victory, as well as win the first postseason championship of the new CCHA era.
Bemidji State is playing for its season. The Beavers are 19-19-0 and on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble. After qualifying for the national tournament a year ago — and knocking off Wisconsin in the opening round — Bemidji State has to win Saturday, on Mankato’s home ice, to reach the NCAA tournament again.
“Coming into the playoffs, we knew we would have to win the CCHA to get in (to the NCAA tournament),” Will said. “It’s a little bit of pressure, but we’re feeling good, so we have to go out there and stick to our game. We’re clicking right now.
“It starts with our (defensive zone play) and that will turn into offense for us.”
Things have clicked for Will this year, too.
In his third season of college hockey, the former Century star not only scored his first college goal — he has scored five of them. His 15 points are five more than he had in his first two seasons combined.
“I think, for me, I’ve just taken more chances (offensively) than I have in the past,” Will said. “Our coaching staff wants me to get up in the rush when I can. It’s just focusing on joining the rush at the right times and taking advantage of the chances when they’re there.”
That increased confidence and strong 200-foot play led to Will Zmolek earning his first-ever weekly award from a conference when he was named the CCHA Defenseman of the Week on March 8, for his strong play — including a pair of assists — in the Beavers’ first-round playoff series victory against Bowling Green.
“It’s pretty cool, but it’s not about individual awards,” he said. “It was a great honor to get it, but it was even better that we got out of that series with the win.”
‘It was an eye-opener’
For Bennett, his injury came at an unfortunate time and will keep him from playing against his brother for a fifth time this season — Minnesota State won all four regular-season meetings between the teams — as he had finally settled into a role on a deep and experienced MSU defensive corps.
He said the Mavericks’ practices are nearly as competitive as their games.
“It’s definitely a different game from (junior hockey),” Bennett said. “It’s a more physical game. In college, you’ll take a hit every time you touch the puck.
“It’s like that with my teammates in practice. It was an eye-opener for me, but it’s good for everyone if you’re tough on each other. You’re making each other better and we all push each other.”
Will Zmolek said he knows Bemidji State is facing a tough task this week. Mankato is a tough place to play, but the Beavers have won there as much as any team has been able to in recent years, including going 2-1-1 there last season, en route to a national tournament appearance.
“It’s big for us to have been (in the NCAA tournament) last year,” he said. “We know what it takes to get there and what it takes to win there. We have a great leadership group. It all starts with them.”