It’s probably terribly too early to brand this season’s Minnesota State-Mankato team a success, with series against Minnesota, St. Cloud State and Colorado College still on tap.
And for the foreseeable future, all Mankato teams will be judged against last year’s, which set a WCHA record for victories by a first-year team and made a trip to the Final Five in Minneapolis.
But if, in the end, this season’s Mavericks are called a success, chalk that up to balance — on one line in particular.
Jesse Rooney, Tim Jackman and Jerry Cunningham have provided 36 goals this season, nearly two per game. Don’t forget about the strong supporting cast, which helps the Mavericks average 3.86 goals per game, but the Rooney-Jackman-Cunningham trio is what’s making this team run.
And, in large part, it’s because of the variety. Rooney is the sniper. He has 20 goals, third in the WCHA behind Bryan Lundbohm and Jeff Panzer, both of North Dakota.
Jackman is the grinder, the guy who’s going to free the puck up for Cunningham, the puck-mover.
“Those kids are good hockey players and they come to play,” Mankato coach Troy Jutting said. “I think it’s a good line because they complement each other well. I think they fit together very well.”
It’s tough to compare Rooney to the Mavericks’ most recent scoring sensation, Aaron Fox, who graduated last year after putting up 50 points. Jutting knows Rooney’s probably not going to get 50 points this year — he has 20 goals and 11 assists for 31 points thus far — but then again, he’s not the same kind of player.
“He doesn’t have maybe the huge point numbers, but he scores the goals. He always has,” Jutting said. “He has stepped up to take the leadership role within our team. He was always kind of a quiet kid and he’s really stepped forward this year and become a team leader and I’m extremely happy for him.”
Rooney scored two goals in a 3-1 victory at Denver last Friday, and the Mavericks completed the sweep on Saturday with a 6-3 win. It was a tremendously important sweep because the Mavericks moved into fifth place, one point ahead of Wisconsin and three ahead of the Pioneers, who have played one more game.
“Obviously we were in a position where we were behind Denver and really needed to win if we were going to make some kind of a move,” Jutting said. “We’re very pleased in that respect.”
But how much more of a move can they make? They have a way to go to catch the teams ahead, but with the exception of first-place North Dakota, they play each of those teams.
Put it this way: If the Mavericks finish fifth or better, you know they’ll have earned it.
“We have a very tough schedule left — four weekends where we’re going to have to come out and play our best hockey,” Jutting said. “Am I pleased that we’re back with home ice as of right now with a 1-5 start? Yes. But do I feel comfortable sitting there? No. We have to keep getting better and we have to keep playing our best hockey if we’re going to stay there or hope to move up.”
The first step is an important one, not just for this season but for the Mankato program, the school and the community.
This weekend, for the first time, Minnesota comes to town. The Mavericks have one win and two ties in seven games against the Gophers, but all of those came in Minneapolis — either at Mariucci Arena or the Target Center, site of last year’s Final Five.
“It’s very big for our community,” Jutting said. “We’ve been playing for a while in Division I, and it hasn’t worked out where we’ve had Minnesota [here], and our community is very excited.
“For our team, we’re excited because it’s another opponent who’s ahead of us in the league and it’s an opportunity for us to make up some difference.”
As usual, they’ll have to earn it.
Dean Weasler decided before the season he was going to try to help his St. Cloud State team in future years by redshirting this one.
And Weasler decided recently that he would forgo that if needed, give up a whole year for one game if it was what was best for the team.
So was it a good thing or a bad thing when the goaltender got called into service last weekend, ending his chance for a redshirt?
Either way, it was a sacrifice that ended up paying off, at least for the time being. Weasler wasn’t stellar, but he helped the Huskies down Colorado College last Saturday.
And with Scott Meyer out again this weekend because of a concussion, he’ll see more time in net against Alaska-Anchorage.
“It’s a huge sacrifice by him doing that,” St. Cloud State assistant coach Brad Willner said. “But he had approached us a couple weeks ago and said, ‘If something happens to Scotty, I’ll be willing to do anything to help this team. If that means coming off my redshirt, I’ll do it.’ And that’s just the type of kid Dean is. He wants to do whatever it takes to win.”
You probably remember Weasler as the Huskies’ goaltender two seasons ago. He played in 30 of 39 games in 1998-99, going 13-11-4.
But he hurt his knee last year and played in only seven games. Meyer emerged from a cloudy goaltender position and ran away with the starting job.
“He was going to use this year just to recover from the knee injury he had and come in next year, and Scotty would have graduated, and he would have been here for another two years,” Willner said. “He came to us at the beginning of the year with that. He was looking at the big picture. He was looking at not only how can he help the team this year, but how can he help next year and the year after.”
Meyer was injured last Friday when he had his mask knocked off and hit his head on the ice. He won’t make the trip to Alaska this weekend.
He’s expected to start facing shots late this week.
Thanks for the Memories
Jeff Sauer won his first national championship in 1983 at what is now called Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. He’s seen the inside of that building countless times over the years as coach at Colorado College and Wisconsin.
This weekend, he’ll take his Badgers into Engelstad for what is scheduled to be the last time. The Sioux are set to debut in their new arena next season.
“My most memorable game in Grand Forks was the first one I coached at the University of Wisconsin,” Sauer said at his weekly news conference. “I coached at Colorado College for 13 years, went to Grand Forks, played them, split with them, beat them, never had any real major problems. Just went in and played the games.
“My coaching staff [at Wisconsin], Bill Howard especially, said you won’t believe what will happen in Grand Forks. It was right after we had the fight. Probably the best fight in college hockey ever happened at the Dane County Coliseum and it involved North Dakota.
“The first time I took a team to North Dakota, I couldn’t believe it. There was a dead badger on the ice on one side, there were guys swinging sticks over the glass, fans swinging sticks over the glass at us. They stole our pucks during the warmups. All of a sudden we’ve got one puck and there’s 150 pucks at the other end.
“It’s kind of old-time hockey, but that’s fun. It’s a memorable place, it’s a fun place to play.”
Down three goals on three separate occasions, no one would have looked twice if St. Cloud State packed it in against Colorado College on Saturday.
Except maybe for the Huskies themselves.
Last season at the Final Five, Huskies coach Craig Dahl lit into his team after playing uninspired late in a semifinal loss to North Dakota. There wasn’t room on his team, he said, for players who didn’t give their all.
Maybe that played into SCSU’s 7-5, come-from-behind-and-behind-and-behind victory.
“It was a huge win for us by doing that and coming back,” Willner said. “We went in after the first period trailing 4-1. Basically we just told our guys just keep on working hard and keep on playing your game and good things will happen. The game could have been 4-3 after the first period. We told the guys, don’t play the score. [CC goaltender Jeff] Sanger came up with some big saves in that first period and the goals we were giving them were mistakes that we were making.
“Richie Larson was great in the locker room between periods of just staying positive. ‘Go out and play the second period like it’s 0-0 and just play our game.’ And he says, ‘If we keep on working and work a full 60-minute game, good things are going to happen and we’ll win this game.'”
If it was only that easy every time.
You hate to say it with so much hockey left to be played, but the WCHA race is North Dakota’s for the losing. And when the Fighting Sioux are in that kind of scenario, they don’t do a whole lot of losing.
With four weeks left in the regular season, North Dakota holds a four-point lead on second-place Colorado College. The Sioux have six games remaining; CC has seven.
With two games in hand on the Sioux, Minnesota is six points back and St. Cloud State is eight back.
The Sioux’s last three series are against sixth-place Wisconsin, seventh-place Denver and eighth-place Michigan Tech. It’s nowhere near a sure deal, but odds are the Sioux will be holding the MacNaughton Cup for the fourth time in five years.
Who Let the Dogs Out?
You know anyone in a student section at a WCHA arena is looking for this kind of feedback.
After Saturday’s win, St. Cloud State’s Brandon Sampair saw a few members of the “Dog Pound,” the SCSU student section at the National Hockey Center.
Said Willner: “I talked to one of the guys today, and he said, ‘Sampair came up to me on Saturday and said on behalf of the team, we want to thank you for getting us going.’ Sometimes, I don’t know if they know how much the players appreciate that. But when your captain goes up to some of the leaders in the group there and thanks them on behalf of the team, it gets those guys even more fired up for the next game.”
Byte for Byte
The dream of any college hockey/Internet enthusiast is one where every game on a given day is available for viewing on the Web.
Michigan Tech takes the first step this weekend.
The school will broadcast its Winter Carnival games against Minnesota-Duluth online. But don’t expect crystal-clear reception. After all, this is still the Web.
“We know certainly that depending upon the type of connection each user has, there will be different results in terms of quality,” said Michigan Tech Director of Athletic Communications and Marketing Dave Fischer, who is also the school’s sports information director.
“While the technology isn’t perfect, we figured Winter Carnival was a good time to give this new venture a try.”
The feed, which will be available by following a link from www.athletics.mtu.edu, will begin about 10 minutes before each game.
What was Ralph Engelstad Arena known as before it was renamed for the former Sioux goaltender? Answer below.
He Said It
“We are at a point in our season where I don’t want to say we are desperate, but we are one notch below that. With seven games left in the regular season, we still have a great opportunity to get points in the standings and it has to start this weekend against Colorado College. It couldn’t come at a better time against a better opponent.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky, on last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Mankato and Saturday’s single game against CC.
North Dakota’s home rink was known as the Winter Sports Center before being renamed Ralph Engelstad Arena by the North Dakota Board of Education on Feb. 18, 1988.
News and Views
On the Docket
As the WCHA regular season winds to a close, the stakes rise. The biggest series of next weekend’s slate looks like the Colorado College-Minnesota pairing at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota could tie or pass CC for second place this weekend.
St. Cloud and Wisconsin meet in Madison, Wis., in a battle of teams either on big road trips or just off them. Wisconsin goes to North Dakota this weekend after returning from Anchorage. The Huskies are in Anchorage this week, and will turn around quickly and go to Madison next week.
And while it’s not for a top spot, the battle between Minnesota-Duluth and Alaska-Anchorage next weekend in Alaska could go a long way in determining playoff positioning. Oh yeah, and in determining who finishes 10th.