Julian Napravnik was scratched from the Minnesota State lineup once early this season.
The Mavericks’ coaching staff was hoping the junior from Bad Nauheim, Germany, would respond in a positive manner to watching the team’s third game of the season from the stands.
The numbers don’t lie: Napravnik responded even better than his coaches could have expected.
The 5-foot-11, 177-pound forward was inserted back into the lineup the following night and he hasn’t left since.
“It just fueled me, I’d say,” Napravnik said of sitting out MSU’s 2-0 win at Michigan Tech on Dec. 7. “Getting scratched is not a great feeling. It pushed me. Coach did a good job, I guess, by doing that. I did not think that at the time, but reflecting back, it pushed me and I got the consistency I needed.”
Napravnik leads the No. 3-ranked Mavericks in scoring, with 21 points this season (eight goals, 13 assists). His 21st point was his most important one yet, and the most important point of his college career.
Napravnik’s pass, intended for a wide-open Akito Hirose, bounced off a Bemidji State defender’s stick and slid past Beavers goalie Zach Driscoll with 51.5 seconds to go in overtime Thursday night, lifting the Mavericks to a 4-3 overtime victory and setting off a wild celebration among his teammates and the 250 fans at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center.
The Mavericks’ 16th victory of the season secures their fourth consecutive WCHA regular season championship in the final season of the WCHA — something never previously accomplished in the 60-plus year history of the league — and ensures the MacNaughton Cup will stay in Mankato.
More importantly, it gives MSU (16-2-1 overall, 11-0-0 WCHA) home-ice advantage throughout the WCHA playoffs. If the Mavericks win a best-of-three first-round playoff series at home on March 12-14, they’ll host the WCHA’s postseason final four the following week.
The winner of that gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Even if they don’t win the league’s postseason title, the Mavericks have all but secured their spot in the national tournament. They lead the nation in winning percentage, goals allowed per game and shots allowed per game.
They close this series against the Beavers at 6:07 p.m. Saturday at Bemidji, then close the regular season with a home series March 5-6 against Michigan Tech. Napravnik's goal assured MSU it will not have to sweat out winning the MacNaughton Cup down to the final day of the regular season, as it did a year ago.
“Julian has been … the maturity of that young man is something,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. “He needs to be very proud of, he’s done a lot of looking in the mirror and seeing the things he needs to work on. He’s been working on them daily, being more consistent in practice Monday through Thursday and that’s carried over into the weekends.
“To see him get a bounce like that, I’m happy for him. He’s put a lot of work into getting his game to where it is right now.”
Just seconds prior to the game-winning goal being scored, McKay kept the game going by sprawling from right to left to rob Ierullo on a back-door chance on a 2-on-1 rush.
“Dryden did what he does, makes a big-time save on a breakaway in OT, then we find a way to make a play at the other end,” Hastings said. “It’s a very important win for us, to clinch home-ice and win the MacNaughton Cup outright. We’re very blessed with this group, especially the seniors, to get four in a row.”
The Mavericks appeared poised to defeat the Beavers (4-4-1 WCHA, 9-7-3 overall) in regulation, carrying a 3-2 lead into the final minute of the third period. But the Beavers pulled Driscoll for an extra attacker with 39 seconds to go, and shortly thereafter, Aaron Miller fired a hard shot that hit the endboards behind MSU goalie Dryden McKay and bounced directly to Bemidji’s Alex Ierullo. He had an open net to shoot and didn’t miss, tying the score 3-3 with :22.6 seconds to go in regulation.
That set up OT and Napravnik’s winner.
“It wasn’t a Mona Lisa, but at this time of the year it doesn’t have to be,” Hastings said. “You just have to find a way to win and move on.”
MSU took the lead for the first time with two goals in the first two minutes of the second period.
Brendan Furry made it 2-1 when he controlled a long pass from Jake Livingstone at the offensive blue line, skated it to the low slot and flipped a backhander past Bemidji State goalie Zach Driscoll just 57 seconds into the second.
Just 45 seconds later, Mavericks defenseman Andy Carroll skated the puck into the Beavers zone and hit the top corner to make it 3-1.
That’s how the score remained until 3:46 remained in the period. Tyler Jubenvill threw a shot toward the Mavericks net that hit an MSU defenseman in front and bounced to Ethan Somoza, who floated shot over McKay’s shoulder to make it 3-2.
Bemidji State’s Tyler Kirkup and Minnesota State’s Todd Burgess traded first-period goals, leaving the score knotted 1-1 after one.
NOTES: Senior assistant captains Jared Spooner and Jack McNeely returned to the lineup for the Mavericks. Spooner had missed four consecutive games after being checked from behind, head-first into the end boards in the closing seconds of a 5-1 win against Bowling Green on Feb. 6. McNeely missed last Saturday’s 5-1 win at Ferris State after taking an elbow to the head the previous night. … Thursday’s game was the fifth meeting of the season between Bemidji State and Minnesota State, but the first in which the Zmolek brothers played against each other. Will Zmolek, the younger brother of MSU captain Riese Zmolek, returned to the lineup last weekend after missing nearly three months.
MINNESOTA STATE 4, BEMIDJI STATE 3
Bemidji State 1-1-1-0—3
Minnesota St. 1-2-0-1—4
First period — 1. BSU, Tyler Kirkup 2 (unassisted) 8:44. 2. MSU, Todd Burgess 5 (Jake Jaremko 12) 14:00. Second period — 3. MSU, Brendan Furry 3 (Jake Livingstone 8, Riese Zmolek 9) :57. 4. MSU, Andy Carroll 3 (Reggie Lutz 10, Burgess 9) 1:42. 5. BSU, Ethan Somoza 10 (Tyler Jubenvill 2, Brendan Harris 7) 16:14. Third period — 6. BSU, Alex Ierullo 5 (Aaron Miller 6, Elias Rosen 6) 19:37 (ea). Overtime — 7. MSU, Julian Napravnik 8 (Nathan Smith 15) 4:09.
Shots on goal — BSU 9-5-8-4—26; MSU 9-8-7-5—29. Goalies — BSU, Zach Driscoll (L, 7-7-3; 25 saves-29 shots); MSU, Dryden McKay (W, 15-1-0; 23 saves-26 shots). Power-play opportunities — BSU 0-for-3; MSU 0-for-1. Penalties — BSU 1-2 minutes; MSU 3-6 minutes.
3 Stars — 3. Dryden McKay (23 saves), 2. Todd Burgess (1 goal, 1 assist); 1. Julian Napravnik (game-winning goal).