Ten days after Minnesota State’s most complete game of the season and the biggest victory in program history, the Mavericks finally took the ice in Pittsburgh, a day in advance of their first-ever national semifinal game.
The No. 5-ranked Mavericks (22-4-1) are set to open play in the program’s first Division I men’s hockey Frozen Four at 4 p.m. Thursday against No. 7-ranked St. Cloud State at PPG Paints Arena (ESPN2).
“We’re just excited to be in Pittsburgh,” ninth-year Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings said after the team’s practice Wednesday morning at the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s our first Frozen Four, a phenomenal facility. The guys enjoyed their time on the ice today and we’re looking forward to the challenge in front of us.”
In some ways, the week and a half between MSU’s 4-0 victory against Minnesota in the West Region final in Loveland, Colorado, on March 28 and the time the Mavericks stepped on the ice in Pittsburgh for a practice session Wednesday, flew by.
In other ways, it felt like that time took forever. The constant concern about daily COVID testing is a stressor that teams in a Frozen Four have never experienced.
The University of Massachusetts — which will face reigning national champion Minnesota Duluth in Thursday’s second national semifinal (8 p.m., ESPN2) — had four players test positive earlier this week, including leading goal-scorer Carson Gicewicz and starting goalie Filip Lindberg, a Minnesota Wild draft pick. Those players are out for the Frozen Four.
“You can do all the right things and still somehow get (COVID),” Minnesota State captain and senior defenseman Riese Zmolek said. “It’s just been us for a while in our bubble, but your heart does race a little bit when you get your results on your phone, and while we’re testing, because you never know.
“But if we stick to what we’ve been doing we should be fine.”
All teams will test one more time, on Thursday morning, in advance of the national semifinals, then again Friday and Saturday for the teams that advance to Saturday’s 6 p.m. title game (ESPN).
Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth have so far made it through the postseason without losing a player or more due to a positive COVID test. Michigan and Notre Dame had to withdraw from the NCAA tournament prior to their scheduled first games due to positive tests and contact tracing leaving them without enough eligible players to compete.
“These young men have gone through a lot,” Hastings said. “When you look at the grander scale of what’s going on in our world, we’re fortunate to just be playing right now.
“I feel for the guys just because they have that anxiety, some of the stress they’ve been under. I have to give them a lot of credit for being able to stick together in order to have the opportunity we have in front of us.”
The goal is the same: Get off to fast start
Mike Hastings and the Minnesota State coaching staff have talked about it all season. Many nights, the first 10 minutes of a game have been make-or-break for the Mavericks.
MSU had to play from behind and chase the game for most of regulation in its NCAA tournament opener on March 27 in Loveland, though it rallied to beat Quinnipiac 4-3 in overtime on a Ryan Sandelin goal.
The next night, however, the Mavericks controlled play from start to finish, earning a dominant 4-0 victory against rival Minnesota to earn a spot in the Frozen Four. Minnesota State limited the high-powered Gophers to just nine shots on goal through two periods.
Mavericks’ players said they’ll need a similar effort if they want to have success against another in-state rival, St. Cloud State.
“The first five minutes — we’ve always been a team that worries about the first five,” MSU junior forward and leading scorer Julian Napravnik said. “That’s a big thing for us. Everybody is going to be a little nervous to start it off. Just getting over the first five minutes and to play our game, will help us have a solid game after that.”
Hastings said that, while the Mavericks can’t afford to chase the score against a team as deep and solid as St. Cloud State, MSU did show its resiliency in its victory against Quinnipiac.
“We’ve tried to address that, from the beginning of the year really until our last competition against Minnesota,” Hastings said. “When you look at our performance in Loveland, we were a bit tentative in that game against Quinnipiac. We found a way to right that in the second period and found a way to get that first win.
“After that I thought our group played a lot freer. We were more aggressive from the drop of the puck against Minnesota. We went out and got into our game a lot earlier.”
‘Trying to be the best Minnesota team’
Minnesota State has 11 Minnesota natives on its roster.
St. Cloud State has 14.
Three of the four teams in the Frozen Four are from the state, and it’s a point of pride for home-grown players.
“Just growing up in Minnesota, a lot of fans call it the ‘State of Hockey,’” Zmolek told the national media. “It’s huge having all five (Division I men’s teams) from the state make it to the national tournament and three in the Frozen Four.
“Growing up, a lot of kids watch and hope for the Minnesota teams to do well. I think Minnesota guys in the locker room take a lot of pride in trying to be the best Minnesota team year after year.”
Minnesota teams have played in five of the past nine national championship games. Minnesota Duluth won titles in 2011, 2018 and 2019, and lost to Denver in the 2017 title game. The University of Minnesota qualified for the 2014 championship game, when it lost to Union.
Mavericks ‘hit the reset button’
Minnesota State didn’t bask in the glory of its first two NCAA tournament victories for long.
In fact, just minutes after its victory against Minnesota in the West Region championship game, Zmolek said the team would enjoy the feeling on the way back to Mankato, then flip the switch the next day and look ahead to facing St. Cloud State.
While the Mavericks may have soaked in the feeling of advancing to a Frozen Four for a little longer than a day, they quickly shifted their focus to taking care of the outside details — media interviews, securing tickets for family, etc. — so they could turn their full attention to preparing to face the Huskies.
“You have to enjoy that moment,” Hastings said. “We did on our Loveland journey, then we came back, hit the reset button, took an emotional and physical break then started back up and we’re continuing the journey today.
“We’re all excited about the opportunity but have learned from other times when we haven’t been able to get through to this point that there’s still work to be done.”
The Mavericks said they learned from a humbling WCHA tournament loss to Northern Michigan, how to make the most of every opportunity in the postseason.
“You want to be playing and having an opportunity to win your last game,” Hastings said. “That’s what every program in the country, when they start their season, they want to climb that mountain. We’re closer today than we’ve ever been.”