Mavericks In Focus: MSU off to strong start, still has questions to answer
Minnesota State has looked like the better team in all five of its games this season. The No. 5-ranked Mavericks are still looking for answers to some questions, though, as the second half of the season begins this weekend at Northern Michigan.
Last we saw the Minnesota State men’s hockey team, it had earned a win and a shootout win at home against one of its biggest rivals, Bemidji State . The Mavericks took a 3-1-1 record into the holiday break and they maintained the No. 5 ranking in the country this week, behind Minnesota, Boston College, North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth.
But how much do we really know about this MSU team?
As head coach Mike Hastings said, we know they can be a heavy team, a really hard team to play against, which is almost a requirement in the WCHA.
We know the Mavericks can put a lot of shots on goal (more on that in a bit).
We know they have two veteran goaltenders who can play at a high level, which will be a huge benefit as MSU gets into conference play this week.
We also know that the myriad postponements and cancellations in the first half of the season haven’t done the Mavericks any favors, in terms of getting new and young players in the lineup prior to the start of conference play. That time is up, though, and MSU will go into this weekend’s WCHA opener at Northern Michigan with just five games under its belt.
The Mavericks are not alone in that regard, as Lake Superior State (six games), Michigan Tech (eight) and Bowling Green (10) are the only WCHA teams that have played more than five games so far. Northern Michigan (1-2-0) has played just three games so far (more on that in a bit, too).
“We’ll take it,” Hastings said of the Mavericks’ 3-1-1 record, after a 1-1 tie against Bemidji State on Dec. 19 in Mankato. “We have a long ways to go, but as (recently) as a month ago we didn’t know if we’d be here, didn’t know if we’d be playing. It was great to play two against a heated rival like Bemidji … now the guys can get ready for the second half.”
Some questions are starting to sort themselves out. Sophomore Cade Borchardt has had a fantastic and -- to be honest -- surprising start, leading the team with three goals and six points. He has been listed primarily as the extra skater on the depth chart, due to his versatility, and that has allowed him to get shifts with nearly all of the Mavericks’ forwards.
Junior forward Julian Napravnik appears to have had a fire lit under him when he was a healthy scratch for the Mavericks’ second game at Michigan Tech on Dec. 7. He responded with a four-point game in the series opener against Bemidji State and he scored the shootout winner in the second game of that series.
The all-senior line of Reggie Lutz, Jake Jaremko and grad transfer Todd Burgess is the only forward line that has been together for all five games. It has shown natural chemistry, which is to be expected from childhood friends Lutz and Jaremko. Burgess and Lutz won an NAHL national championship together in Fairbanks in 2015-16 and have picked up where they left off five years ago. That line has accounted for 13 of MSU’s 40 points so far this season.
Sophomore forward Nathan Smith has three assists and is still looking for his first goal of the season, but stats don’t tell the whole story for the center from Tampa, Fla. Hastings praised Smith prior to the season, saying the team’s second-leading returning scorer “looked like a veteran.” He’s flashed his playmaking ability often through five games, but hasn’t consistently been rewarded.
MSU also looks to have a solidified top-four defensive corps. Senior captain Riese Zmolek and freshman Jake Livingstone have played together in all five games, as have senior assistant captain Jack McNeely and freshman Akito Hirose. Livingstone and Hirose have shown the playmaking abilities and the 200-feet games that Hastings said he liked so much about them when they committed to MSU.
Other questions the Mavs still need to answer -- who else will step up as scorers? Will power-play production increase? Will MSU start to get rewarded on the scoreboard for its work of getting the puck to the net so often? -- will be answered soon enough.
The schedule ramps up for the Mavericks beginning this weekend, with games at Northern Michigan on Saturday (5:07 p.m.) and Sunday (3:07 p.m.). That’s followed by a home series against Michigan Tech on Jan. 8 and 9.
MSU In The Polls
The Mavericks (3-1-1 overall) are No. 5 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national polls this week. This is the third consecutive week the Mavericks have come in at No. 5.
MSU opens the second “half” of its season with its first two games of the season that count in the WCHA standings. The Mavericks travel to Marquette, Mich., to face Northern Michigan University (1-2-0) at 5:07 p.m. Saturday and 3:07 p.m. Sunday. Both games will be streamed on FloHockey.TV and can be heard in the Mankato area on 1420-AM KTOE.
NMU at a glance
Northern Michigan is 1-2-0 overall. The Wildcats beat Ferris State 5-4 in their opener on Dec. 16, then were swept in a home-and-home series against Michigan Tech, 4-3 in OT at Tech on Dec. 18, and 3-1 on Dec. 19 in Marquette.
The Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the league this season by in the preseason WCHA Media Poll.
Junior forward Griffin Loughran was picked second in the balloting for preseason Player of the Year. Loughran, who had 16 goals and 39 points last season, has played in just two games so far. He has just one assist, but it was a big one, setting up AJ Vanderbeck’s goal with 9 seconds to play in the third period on Dec. 18 at Michigan Tech, a goal that forced OT.
Junior goalie Nolan Kent seized the starting job down the stretch last season as a sophomore, after having played in just two games as a freshman. Kent started 10 of the Wildcats’ final 12 games last season and finished the year with a 7-11-1 record, a 2.87 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. Included in that late-season surge was a 20-save performance in a 1-0 loss at MSU on Feb. 8.
Shots, shots, shots
We’ve heard this from Mike Hastings a couple times this season: MSU has been great at getting pucks to the net. Now it has to find ways to get pucks past the goalie.
We first heard that in regards to the team’s power play, which was just 1-for-10 through three games. The Mavericks rebounded with a 2-for-3 effort in their home series against Bemidji State. But Hastings mentioned it briefly following the shootout win against the Beavers on Dec. 19, this time in regards to the offense as a whole.
If the eye test wasn’t enough to bear this out, the numbers do. Minnesota State is fourth in the country in shots on goal per game (37.8), yet the Mavericks are just 26th in the country in goals per game (2.80).
Some of it has to do with facing quality goaltending. Blake Pietila was outstanding in both of the Mavericks’ games at Tech, stopping 78 of 81 shots in the two-game series. In their other three games, the Mavericks faced Bemidji State’s Zach Driscoll, who was one of 10 semifinalists for the Mike Richter Award last season. MSU scored five goals against Driscoll in two of those three games.
So, while this trend is something to keep an eye on, five games is still a fairly small sample size and it’s not something to be concerned about just yet.
WCHA Power Rankings
1. Minnesota State (3-1-1): The Mavericks’ win and tie (shootout win) against Bemidji State, along with their No. 5 ranking in the country, keep them in the top spot this week, but just by a thread, over Bowling Green. If nothing else, the Mavericks are learning to play in -- and win -- tight games. Four of their five games have been decided by two goals or less.
2. Bowling Green (9-1-0): Despite the loss of All-America defenseman Alec Rauhauser, the Falcons are loaded this season. They went on the road and swept No. 11 Quinnipiac on Dec. 18 and 19 and have won six consecutive games since their only loss, a 2-1 setback at Mercyhurst -- a team that received votes in the USCHO.com national poll this week -- on Dec. 5. Bowling Green leads the country in wins (nine) and shots on goal differential per game (plus-18.9), is tied for fourth in goals-against per game (1.60) and sixth in goals per game (4.0).
3. Lake Superior State (4-0-2): The Lakers can’t control who’s on their schedule, and they’ve handled it well so far, getting a win and a tie in series against Michigan Tech and Alabama Huntsville, and sweeping a strong Division III team, Adrian College. No. 19-ranked LSSU has a tough stretch to start the new year over the next three weeks, with home series against Bemidji State and MSU sandwiched around a series at Northern Michigan.
4. Michigan Tech (4-3-1): Blake Pietila appears to have seized the Huskies’ starting goalie job, having started six of their eight games, including the past three in a row, all victories. Tech starts its second half with a stretch of eight out of 12 games on the road, including series at MSU (Jan. 8-9) and at Bowling Green (Jan. 29-30).
5. Bemidji State (1-3-1): The Beavers have never been a high-scoring team, so allowing 3.4 goals per game will need to change if they hope to challenge for a WCHA title again this season. BSU may be headed down the right path, though. For perhaps the first time this season, we saw the Beavers team we’ve expected to see, during its most recent game, a 1-1 tie at Minnesota State on Dec. 19.
6. Northern Michigan (1-2-0): The Wildcats get thrown into the fire to start the conference season, with three consecutive series against teams ranked in this week’s USCHO.com national poll. NMU hosts No. 5 Minnesota State this weekend and No. 19 Lake Superior State on Jan. 8-9, then NMU goes to No. 7 Bowling Green on Jan. 15-16.
7. Alabama Huntsville (0-3-1): Huntsville’s record suddenly doesn’t look so bad, with a one-goal loss to Robert Morris (receiving votes in the national poll), and a one-goal loss and a tie against Lake Superior State (ranked No. 19).
8. Ferris State (0-3-0): The Bulldogs are allowing the second-most goals per game in the country (4.67). They’ll need to shore up their defensive-zone play with Bowling Green, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State on the horizon in January.
MSU Women Face Another Stiff Test
This week’s games: No. 1 Wisconsin (1-1-0) at Minnesota State (2-5-1)
When: Saturday and Sunday, 2:07 p.m.
Where: Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center, Mankato
Weekend outlook: The Minnesota State women’s hockey team closed the pre-holiday break portion of its schedule on a strong note.
The Mavericks earned a tie (shootout victory) and a win in a home series against Bemidji State on Dec. 17-18, their last games prior to the break.
A week earlier, MSU was swept by No. 3-ranked Minnesota, but the Mavericks (2-5-1 overall) trailed just 1-0 going into the third period of the series opener before falling 5-1. MSU dropped the series finale in a tight 2-1 game in which goalie Lauren Barbro stopped 29 of 31 shots she faced.
Freshman Jamie Nelson has been a bright spot for MSU so far this season. The freshman forward helped Andover to a Class AA high school state championship last season. She went into the break tied for fifth in the country this season with seven points, including a goal and an assist in the Mavericks final game before the break, a 5-3 victory against Bemidji State.
MSU hopes to carry its pre-holiday momentum into the second half of the season, which begins Saturday and Sunday with a two-game series against No. 1-ranked Wisconsin at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center. The Badgers are just 1-1-0 this season and haven’t played a game since Nov. 28, a 5-0 win at Ohio State.
Wisconsin was picked No. 1 in the WCHA preseason coaches poll, just ahead of Minnesota. The Badgers also received 10 of 15 first-place votes in the most recent USCHO.com national poll.
Senior Daryl Watts was named the league’s Preseason Player of the Year and junior Sophie Shirley joined Watts on the preseason All-WCHA Team. Watts is an offensive dynamo; she had 25 goals and led the country with 49 assists last season, when she was one of 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given annually to the top player in women’s college hockey. Shirley was also a Kazmaier top-10 finalist last season, when she recorded 61 points and led the Badgers with 29 goals.
Up next: Minnesota State goes back on the road next week to face a familiar opponent. The Mavericks play at Bemidji State on Jan. 8 and 9, a series rescheduled from Dec. 4-5.