GRAND FORKS, N.D. — This is a tale of two teams headed in opposite directions.
With a 6-0 win and sweep of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux Saturday night, the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks accomplished two impressive feats.
First, they became the first team to sweep the Sioux at home in the regular season since Minnesota-Duluth did it in January 1995. Second, they became the first team to shut out the Sioux at home since 1982, when Wisconsin beat North Dakota 9-0 in the WCHA playoffs.
The Sioux, who two weekends ago beat and tied the Mavericks in Mankato and opened their WCHA season by sweeping Colorado College, were outscored 12-4 in the series, jeered Friday night by their fans and severely castigated by coach Dean Blais. A young team that was once steadily improving now appears to be in disarray.
The Mavericks needed just 2:24 to score the first — and game-winning — goal. Freshman defenseman Steven Johns sent sophomore wing Cole Bassett on a two-on-one rush. Bassett wound up and fired a slapshot from the top of the circle that beat Sioux goalie Andy Kollar high on his glove side. It was the Maverick’s first shot on goal and Bassett’s second game-winner of the weekend.
After watching his team turn in an uninspired performance in the first game, Blais shook up the Sioux lineup in hopes of generating more offense and improving team defense. Although North Dakota played with more intensity early and tested Mankato sophomore goalie Jason Jensen far more often, the Mavericks’ second goal, at 6:19, deflated the Sioux.
Mankato scored on its second shot on goal, which wasn’t really a shot at all. Sophomore defenseman Matt Paluczak dumped the puck into the Sioux zone just outside the blue line. Kollar came well out of the crease to play the puck, but it bounced over his stick and into the goal.
“Not only was it an extremely lucky goal, it was an extremely big goal,” said Mankato coach Troy Jutting.
Kollar was immediately replaced by sophomore goalie Ryan Sofie, but Maverick senior winger Josh Kern dashed any hopes of a Sioux rally when he scored his fifth goal of the year just 1:36 into the second period. He picked up a loose puck that bounced off the endboards behind the goal, made a quick, strong move to the front of the net and slammed a backhander between Sofie’s pads to give Mankato a 3-0 lead.
At 18:30 of the second period, Maverick freshman forward Grant Stevenson completed an end-to-end rush by walking around Sioux senior defenseman Aaron Schneekloth and roofing a wrist shot past Sofie. Jensen picked up an assist on the play, one more point than the entire Sioux team earned for the night.
The Mavericks continued to pour it on, scoring two more goals in the final period. Junior center Jerry Cunningham picked up his seventh goal of the season, scoring on the power play at 3:17. Sophomore forward Tim Jackman closed out the scoring with a goal at 11:02.
Jutting and Blais agreed that goaltending was the biggest difference between the two teams.
“Goaltending’s the most important part of hockey,” Blais said. “I don’t usually like to blame goaltenders for losses, but tonight was a case when Mankato’s was good and ours wasn’t. At the start of a game, you need a save, and we didn’t get it.”
Although Jensen admitted that he didn’t play well in Mankato’s 6-4 win over the Sioux Friday night, Saturday night was different.
“He was definitely on tonight,” Jutting said. “He made a couple of big saves in the first period when we weren’t playing real well. I think a big save can be almost as important as a big goal. When we saw how sharp he was making those plays, it really picked up our team.”
Jensen gave much of the credit to his teammates.
“The defensemen were really great tonight, clearing out guys in front so I could see the puck,” he noted. “I kicked a couple long rebounds out, but they were right there. Our forwards were backchecking as well, making some great plays. It was just an all-around great effort.”
As the frustration built for the Sioux, tempers flared. A melee erupted directly in front of Mankato’s bench in which Jutting attempted to intervene to separate battling players. Three Sioux players and two Mavericks were sent to the box. Sorenson and North Dakota forward Kevin Spiewak each received 10-minute game misconduct penalties.
Sioux captain Chad Mazurak, a veteran on WCHA title-winning teams and a national championship, finds himself in the unusual position of trying to lead a North Dakota team slipping toward the bottom of its conference.
“We didn’t do anything really right tonight,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do even to get back to mediocre.”
Blais remains hopeful. “We’re not going to come apart at the seams, but we’ re not a championship team,” he said.