MANKATO, Minn. — Back in mid-November, Minnesota State wrapped up a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series at Denver by dropping a 7-0 decision Saturday night.
That, according to Mavericks’ coach Troy Jutting, was the turning point in MSU’s season. On Saturday night, things came full circle for the youthful Mavericks, who defeated the No. 4 Pioneers 3-2 to complete their first series sweep over Denver since the 2000-01 season, and their first double play over the Pioneers in Mankato since 1999.
“The biggest turning point this season was that 7-0 whuppin’,” Jutting said. “I think the kids decided they wanted to be better than that, and have committed to being better than that.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky was impressed with the Mavericks’ turnaround.
“They are a vastly improved team,” Gwozdecky said. “They’re playing smart and with a lot of confidence.”
For the second straight night, MSU led 1-0 after the first period. This time, it was the Mavericks’ power play that put them on the board.
Geoff Irwin fired a pass from behind the goal line to Andy Sackrison at the left circle. His wrister beat Peter Mannino five-hole at 17:38.
The goal was the first power-play tally in 10 tries on the weekend for the Mavericks. Both teams had five shots in the first period.
“We needed to score on the power play tonight,” Jutting said. “You’re not going to score five even strength goals like we did last night. We needed to score on the power play to win and we did that.”
The Mavericks took a 2-0 lead 1:11 into the second following a face-off to Mannino’s right. Trevor Bruess won the draw back to R.J. Linder at the point. His wrister was deflected in front by Joel Hanson through the five-hole.
DU pulled back within one just over five minutes later.
Just seconds after a holding penalty to MSU’s Jason Wiley expired, Rhett Rakhshani blasted a shot that caromed off the crossbar. The puck deflected right to Tyler Bozak on the doorstop who shelved the rebound at 6:19.
The goal gave the Pioneers new life, as they played perhaps their most inspired hockey of the weekend. However, with just under five minutes to play in the period, play was stopped for nearly 10 minutes to repair a broken section of glass between the benches.
Less than a minute later, the Mavericks pushed their lead back to two, as Jon Kalinski pounded home a rebound from a scuffle in front at 15:50.
“I don’t think it was bombs away for them at that point [before the stoppage],” Jutting said. “But they definitely had the momentum.”
“I thought up until that point, they were controlling the play,” Linder said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better than a goal after that.”
The Pioneers scored a power-play goal of their own to pull back within one at the 13:46 mark of the third. Kyle Ostrow outraced a number of players to a puck dumped into the zone by J.P. Testwuide. Ostrow tapped the puck over Mike Zacharias’ blocker for his 10th goal of the season. Mannino had the second assist, the goaltender’s fourth this season and third against the Mavericks.
“Our play was very substandard last night,” Gwozdecky said. “I think we went from one extreme to the other tonight as far as our effort.
“But when you put yourself in a position where it’s almost must-win, I think at times you’re not quite as relaxed and confident. I think that’s where we’re at right now as a team.”
With just under two minutes to play and a faceoff to Zacharias’ right, Denver called timeout and pulled Mannino. The Pioneers had a couple of quality chances, but were unable to beat the junior netminder, who stopped 18 shots to improve to 12-7-4 this season.
“There were some things tonight where we didn’t execute very well, especially from an offensive standpoint,” Gwozdecky said.
“I thought Denver played a lot better tonight,” Jutting said. “I thought they played with heart and a little bit of desperation.”
The win puts the Mavericks (13-10-4 overall, 6-9-4 WCHA) alone in sixth place in the WCHA standings, three points ahead of Minnesota. With the UMD-Wisconsin split in Madison, MSU stands just one point behind both teams for fourth place. The Mavericks will host last place Alaska-Anchorage next weekend before a critical series in Madison in 13 days.
Perhaps more importantly for the Mavericks, the sweep vaulted Minnesota State back into the NCAA tournament picture. With the sweep, the Mavericks vaulted into a tie for 10th in the Pairwise rankings, which often mimic the selection committee’s choices. Entering the weekend, MSU was 20th.
Denver (18-8-3, 12-6-0) dropped to five points behind North Dakota for second place in the conference, but remains five points ahead of the Bulldogs and Badgers. DU will host Minnesota at Magness Arena next weekend.