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Mavericks In Focus: 'We're asking the guys to take care of each other'

In this weeks Mavericks In Focus: Minnesota State University men's hockey head coach Mike Hastings talks about his team being thrown another curveball this week; we offer our takeaways from MSU's series at Michigan Tech; no changes in the weekly The Rink Live WCHA Power Rankings; and a look at the MSU women's hockey team's week.

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Minnesota State forward Reggie Lutz (16) skates up ice against St. Cloud State defender Jack Ahcan (12) and forward Jack Poehling (3) during the first period of the first game of the Mariucci Classic at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis on Saturday Dec. 28, 2019. (John Autey / The Rink Live)

The curveballs have been hurled at the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team so often this fall that they don’t even curve anymore.

The No. 6-ranked Mavericks (2-1-0 overall) have become accustomed to seeing them.

So when this weekend’s scheduled home openers against Milwaukee School Of Engineering -- a series that replaced a two-game set against Northern Michigan that had to be canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests within the Wildcats’ program -- were called off, it was just another day at the rink for MSU.

The MSOE series was also called off due to positive COVID tests within the Raiders program. MSU also had three games postponed or canceled due to COVID cases within its own team in November.

“The guys are handling it about as well as they could,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. “We lean on our leadership group quite a bit. Unfortunately, those guys have been through this since the get-go (with the pandemic) last March. It’s one that you just … it’s a different time.

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“Flexibility is an every-day quality you need to have in your mindset. Our guys have done a good job of that, trying to squeeze out of each day what you can.”

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Minnesota State Mankato head coach Mike Hastings

The MSU coaching staff gave the players what he called a “mental break” on Thursday, giving them a day away from the rink and from the coaches. And it gave the coaches a break, too. There are only so many practices a team can hold without getting that reward of playing games.

“The reason our seasons are set up like they are in college hockey, as a long season, is because for the most part on a given week we practice four days, play two and take a day off,” Hastings said, “and we’ve run the gamut of practices.

“We’re trying to make things as fresh as we can, doing things differently as far as, we told them what the plan is for the next three days. I never thought I’d say this, but projecting 72 hours from where we’re at is a long way out.”

Hastings said the things the Mavericks are trying to focus on the things they know will be there daily -- namely COVID testing and academic work. They’re viewing every practice and game they play as a gift.

“We’re trying to communicate as much as we can through, not as much face to face,” he said, “but we’re asking the guys to take care of each other at the rink and away from it.”

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TAKEAWAYS FROM TECH

MSU was finally able to play a two-game series on Sunday and Monday at Michigan Tech.

The Mavericks put 44 shots on net in Sunday’s game, but ran into a hot goaltender, as Tech’s Blake Pietila made 43 saves in a 3-1 Huskies victory. MSU bounced back Monday, getting a 19-save shutout from Dryden McKay and goals from forwards Todd Burgess and Cade Borchardt, the first for each of them as Mavericks. So what did we learn about the Mavericks in Games 2 and 3 this season? Here are a few takeaways from those games:

Goalies Got It

Pietila was all but unbeatable in Sunday’s 3-1 Mavericks loss. He made 43 saves, including 34 over the final 40 minutes as MSU made a strong push to get back in the game.

Perhaps the most impressive save Pietila made came with 90 second to go in the second period, when Mavericks forward Ryan Sandelin made a pretty behind-his back pass to Brendan Furry, who was cutting through the right circle. Furry carried the puck across the top of the crease, past a prone Pietila, who dove in attempt to make a poke-check. Furry carried the puck to the far side and appeared to have a wide-open goal to shoot at, but Pietila kicked up his right leg at the last second to rob Furry of his first goal as a Maverick.

Pietila, who was named the WCHA Goalie of the Week, was sharp again in Monday’s game, making 35 saves in MSU’s 2-0 win.

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Dryden McKay

McKay was the runner-up for the Goalie of the Week award after stopping 40 of the 42 shots he faced in the two games. He recorded his school-record 16th career shutout and his second in three games this season. The junior goalie is now ninth all-time on the NCAA shutout list and No. 2 in WCHA history, behind only Bemidji State’s Michael Bitzer, who had 21 shutouts between 2014-18.

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Power Play Problems

One stat jumped over and over for Hastings as he watched video of the series at Michigan Tech and looked at the stat sheets: 1-for-9. That was MSU’s weekend on the power play.

The Mavericks scored one power-play goal in two games -- Todd Burgess’ game winner on Monday. They were 0-for-3 in Sunday’s game and 1-for-6 in Monday’s game. The Huskies, by comparison, went 2-for-5 on the power play in their win Sunday, and MSU held them to an 0-for-6 night on Monday.

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Todd Burgess

“For me, that’s the thing that sticks out above others,” Hastings said. “As it is in college hockey, when you’re playing teams and games that are as tightly contested as those (games at Tech) were, special teams sometimes make the difference, and the game on Sunday, they did.”

Hastings said some of the Mavericks’ inconsistencies are due to not yet having had many repetitions on the power play in game situations. MSU had only one power-play opportunity (it didn’t score) in its season-opening 5-0 win at Bemidji State on Nov. 22.

MSU has also switched up its power-play and penalty-kill units frequently through the first three games, to get a look at different player combinations.

“That’s something we have to look at and we have to be better at,” he said, “but again, you want to play games. To replicate the intensity in practice on special teams, whether it’s the power play or the penalty kill, is very difficult.

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“We’ve had different guys on the power play, different guys on the penalty kill. They ahve to get out and get reps. I liked our puck possession numbers and I liked our play with the puck. We just need to have a little more of a result of getting pucks behind the goalie.”

Puck Hogs

While Hastings and the Mavericks weren’t happy with the lack of power play success at Tech, they were pleased with the way they held onto the puck.

That showed not only on the scoreboard -- Tech scored just one five-on-five goal all weekend -- but in the number of shots McKay had to face. MSU outshot Tech 81-43 in the series, and limited the Huskies to just one shot on goal in the second period of Monday’s 2-0 Mavericks’ victory.

“Anytime you can possess the puck, you make the other team have to defend you,” Hastings said. “Just going all the way back to when you or I started playing, or when these guys started playing, they all enjoy playing the game more when you have the puck than when you don’t.

“Once we got the puck (at Tech) we held onto it, and when we didn’t have it we had the attitude of ‘we have to go back and get it.’ You don’t do that as one or two guys on the rink. You have to do it as a group of five.”

MSU IN THE POLLS

The Mavericks (2-1-0) are No. 6 this week in both the USCHO.com national rankings and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national rankings. They were in the same spot in both polls last week.

UP NEXT

Minnesota State’s series this weekend against Milwaukee School of Engineering has been canceled due to positive COVID tests within the MSOE program. The Saturday-Sunday series would have been MSU’s first games against a Division III opponent since the Mavericks’ first season as a Division I team, in 1996.

MSU’s next schedule games are its home openers, Dec. 18-19, a non-conference series against Bemidji State. Faceoff is set for 7:37 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, and 5:07 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19. Both games will be streamed live on FloHockey.TV and will be broadcast on 1420 KTOE-AM radio in Mankato.

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TRL’s WCHA POWER RANKINGS

The University of Alaska announced Friday evening that it is opting out of the 2020-21 season, joining in-state rival Alaska-Anchorage. That leaves the WCHA with eight teams for the season and we’re beginning to get a picture of where those teams fall in the hierarchy of the league this year.

1. Minnesota State (2-1-0): The No. 6-ranked Mavericks suffered their first loss of the season last Sunday, 3-1 (empty-netter) at Michigan Tech. MSU bounced back with a shutout of the Huskies the next day and outshot Tech 81-43 in the series. Dryden McKay gives the No. 6-ranked Mavs a fighting chance every time out.

2. Bowling Green (5-1-0): The Falcons have won five of six and are ranked No. 16 in the country this week. But they have two wins over a Division III program, a road split against Mercyhurst and eked out a 3-2 win against Ferris State on Friday, thanks to a Max Johnson goal with 12 seconds to go. We’ll know more about the Falcons after they play at No. 11 Quinnipiac this weekend.

3. Bemidji State (0-1-0): If there’s a team more frustrated than Minnesota State about postponed and canceled games, it’s likely the Beavers. They haven’t played since a 5-0 season-opening loss to MSU. They’re scheduled to host Michigan Tech this weekend, then play at MSU the following weekend. That’s a competitive stretch for the Beavers heading into the holiday break.

4. Lake Superior State (4-0-2): The Lakers haven’t lost yet, but they were pushed by Huntsville last weekend, getting a win and a tie against the Chargers. Goalie Mareks Mitens (3-0-2) is off to a strong start, with a 1.45 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage through five games played.

5. Michigan Tech (1-2-1): The Huskies earned a split with No. 6 Minnesota State last weekend and may have found a front-runner for their starting goalie job in the process. Blake Pietila stopped 78 of 81 shots over the two-game series, though the Huskies likely don’t want him to see that many shots on a regular basis.

6. Northern Michigan (0-0-0): The Wildcats are finally scheduled to get on the ice against someone other than themselves this week. Northern Michigan has three games scheduled -- Wednesday against Ferris State, followed by a home-and-home against Tech on Friday and Saturday.

7. Ferris State (0-1-0): The Bulldogs played their opener Friday night and showed well, pushing Bowling Green to the final seconds of the game in a 3-2 loss. BGSU’s Max Johnson scored with 12 seconds to go in the third period to spoil Ferris’ rally. The Bulldogs fought back from a two-goal deficit to tie it.

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8. Alabama Huntsville (0-3-1): COVID finally hit home for the Chargers this week, when their scheduled game against Ferris State on Wednesday was canceled due to a positive test within the Huntsville program. UAH has played well in its first four games, though it hasn’t found the win column. The Chargers have one tie and two one-goal losses in their past three games.

MSU WOMEN PUSH NO. 3 GOPHERS

The Minnesota State women’s hockey team gained a measure of confidence heading into the holiday break. Though they lost twice, the Mavericks pushed No. 3-ranked Minnesota in both games of a home-and-home series this week.

MSU was within 2-1 nearly halfway through an eventual 5-1 loss Thursday night in Mankato, then the Mavericks fell in a tight 2-1 game at Minneapolis on Friday.

Minnesota State women’s hockey at a glance:

Record: 1-5-0 WCHA, 1-5-0 overall

This week: MSU fell to No. 3-ranked Minnesota 5-1 on Thursday in Mankato, and it fell to the Gophers 2-1 on Friday at Minneapolis.

Noteworthy: Friday’s game marked MSU’s second one-goal loss of the season. … The Mavericks allowed just one five-on-five goal Friday, and freshman goalie Lauren Barbro stopped 29 shots in the narrow setback. … Barbro started both games against the Gophers, her first two college starts. She made 23 saves Thursday, when the Gophers scored three times in the final 10:22 to break open a close game. … Six Mavericks recorded a point in the series. … Sydney Langseth scored MSU’s goal Thursday, while Brittyn Fleming notched the Mavericks’ goal Friday. Fleming scored with just 29 seconds to go in the second period, pulling MSU within 2-1. … Defenseman Tristen Truax led the Mavericks with nine shots on goal over the two-game series. Madison Oelkers had eight.

Up Next: MSU is scheduled to close out its pre-holiday break schedule on Thursday and Friday at home against Bemidji State. A scheduled series between the Mavericks and Beavers at Bemidji on Dec. 4-5 was postponed. … Bemidji State is 1-1-0 after splitting a series against St. Cloud State this week, both teams winning a game by a 3-2 score in OT.

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