Prairie Home Companions

Chemistry is not necessarily a favored academic offering for most college hockey players, but the MSU-Mankato hockey team might have a good shot at getting credits for real-world experience in the subject.

Currently possessing an 18-8-10 record and tied for ninth in the PairWise Rankings, the Mavericks are in hot pursuit of a Final Five appearance in the WCHA and very possibly their first-ever invitation to the NCAA Division I tournament. They put up a 17-game unbeaten streak this season during a stretch of their schedule that included North Dakota, Minnesota, and Denver twice apiece.

Not exactly what the pundits were predicting on the heels of 16-20-2 record last season.

The Mavericks’ coach and top players have all been quick to cite chemistry as the critical ingredient. This is clearly a team that wins because its players love to play together.

“From the start of the season, with every loss and every game, we just said that we’ve got to get better,” said forward Shane Joseph, who leads the team with 27 goals and 57 points in 36 games. “We’ve all come together as a team and worked out all the kinks. The chemistry on the team is really amazing — everybody wants to be at the rink and get better. Even when we don’t bring our ‘A’ game, we’ve found a way to get the job done.”

“It’s just been a great year so far,” said linemate Grant Stevenson, the team’s leading playmaker with 31 assists. “Our team’s pretty close, and we’re a hard-working team, pretty offensive, and we have a really good team chemistry. It just seems like more than last year everybody’s on the same page this year.”

Coach Troy Jutting (MSU-Mankato ’87) concurred but offered a more detailed explanation of this year’s good fortunes.

“First and foremost we’re a young team with only three seniors — we’ve gotten great leadership from those three kids,” Jutting said. “I think B.J. Abel is a consummate leader: he’s done a great job for us in that respect — and so have Joe Bourne and Peter Runkel.

“Secondly, I think we have great team chemistry. Kids like each other and get along very well: They’re a hard-working group of kids. Then the third thing is the emergence of Grant and Shane as premier players on the national level. Those three things have been the keys to our success this year.”

Certainly Joseph and Stevenson have received the most media attention for their exploits this season. Joseph’s numbers represent a logical progression after his breakout year last season, but Stevenson has been the most pleasant surprise during this campaign.

“Shane had 20 goals last years as a sophomore,” Jutting said. “A lot of people think he’s had a big breakout year — and obviously he’s put up better numbers than last year — but any time you put up 20 goals in college hockey, you had a pretty good season. I think he built off his sophomore year, the confidence he gained in scoring.

“Grant only had 16 points as a freshman, so this is a big breakout year for him,” added Jutting. “I think it’s just a case where Grant knew what to expect coming into this year, went home, had a great summer in terms of preparing himself physically to become a better hockey player, but I think most of it with Grant was that he had been there and knew what to expect and came back and elevated his game.”

For Joseph, the last two seasons have provided considerable vindication after he struggled physically and mentally his first two seasons with the team.

“My first year I broke my leg five games into the season and had a medical redshirt that year,” Joseph said. “And then my redshirt freshman year I came in and only played about half the games. I couldn’t get my confidence back or get the feel of the game back. You miss a whole year of hockey and it’s tough to get back into it. The next year I came in and scored my first shift up at Bemidji, and I progressed from there.”

“He’s probably one of the best skaters in the WCHA, possibly the country,” Stevenson said of Joseph. “He’s a shifty little guy — he’s not that big, but he’s pretty thick, so he’s strong on the puck and he kind of has a knack for finding a hole around the net and being able to bury pucks.”

Stevenson had a harder time figuring out why his personal breakthrough occurred this season. “I’m still at a loss of words to explain it,” he said. “The coaches told me that I’d be expected to step up and fill that role, so I’ve been in the mindframe that I need to play well. Having Shane on my line is a great combination — we both think the same and have the same goals. We’ve been working hard all year trying to contribute to our team.”

“He’s crafty; he’s unbelievable the way he sees the ice,” said Joseph of Stevenson’s style. “He sees guys and is able to thread the needle and make the pass come through. This year he’s just been a sniper; when he gets the puck in front, there’s almost nobody more dangerous. He just finds the hole and buries the puck. We work well together; we have a certain chemistry. He sees me and knows where I’m going to be. It’s a privilege to play with him.”

Yet both readily admit that many overlook the contributions of the supporting cast, echoing Jutting’s comments about senior leadership.

“We’ve got our two senior defensemen who’ve really stepped up for us this year,” Joseph said, referring to Bourne and Runkel. “They play more than half the minutes in the game. In the third period, sometimes they’re out there the whole time. Also our senior forward B.J. Abel is probably the best defensive forward in the league and he also puts up some pretty good numbers offensively. So those three seniors are definitely high contributors to our team this year.”

“[Jason Jensen has] stolen quite a few games for us over the last couple of years,” Stevenson said of the junior netminder, who teams with sophomore Jon Volp to give the team an effective goaltending tandem. “I think our whole team hasn’t had a lot of credit since the beginning of the year,” added Stevenson. “Our third and fourth line have been playing great the last few months. It’s starting to come around. Everyone’s contributing.”

Fans in this small city in Minnesota are starting to come around too.

“I think it’s great,” said Stevenson when asked about playing in Mankato. “Coming from a small town in Canada and junior hockey, it’s kind of the same atmosphere. I don’t think a lot of people were really interested or knew the program, but with our success and national recognition we’ve been getting more fans. Against North Dakota, I think we broke the attendance record.”

As a hockey alum, Jutting finds it gratifying that the team is giving the community some recognition, which up until recently outside the region was limited to a recollection of the town’s name coming up in episodes of Little House On The Prairie.

“That’s the reference that most people think who haven’t been there,” admitted Jutting. “It’s a great community of about 60-65,000, a very friendly community. When they talk about Minnesota — nice, it definitely fits that category. The school is over 100 years old but was rebuilt about 25 years ago, so it’s a very modern, new campus.

“The people in the community have been very supportive of our program,” added Jutting. “It’s not hustle and bustle, but it’s not a small town, either. There are things to do. It’s the perfect size for a community.”

Even those who know Mankato and its team well are scratching their heads over one aspect of the team’s performance. In their last regular-season game, the Mavericks set a new D-I record with their 10th tie of the season.

“Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad,” Stevenson said of the numerous draws. “Coming back it’s a good feeling, being able to go for the win in overtime. At the same time, if you’re up by a goal, and they’ve got the goalie pulled — like what happened to us in Denver — it’s a pretty big letdown.”

Is there a reason for the statistical oddity?

“No, I don’t think there is,” Jutting said. “We’ve been in 12 overtime games and maybe part of our success is we’ve only lost one of those overtime games. But in terms of why we’ve been in that many overtime games, I couldn’t tell you. If I could, I’d rather not be in them, to be honest with you.”

Ironically, Jutting cited the team’s one overtime loss as the turning point in the season. “We were 0-2 at the time and went to St. Cloud and went down 5-0 at the end of the first period,” Jutting recalled. “At that time, all of the kids as a group decided it wasn’t going to be that way this year. They went out and actually came back and tied that game.

“That turned out to be the only overtime game we lost all year, but we fought all the way back, and that was in St. Cloud,” added Jutting. “While it was still a loss, to come back from five goals down in somebody’s else’s building really boosted their confidence.”

Ample overtime experience couldn’t hurt when it comes to the NCAA tournament, but Jutting has not begun to think about it, even though it would be an incredible first for the program in D-I.

“This is very honest — I really haven’t looked a whole bunch at that,” Jutting said. “That’s another reason for the success of this team: the kids have been very good at keeping it with what’s next, not what’s two weeks from now. We really haven’t done a lot of looking into the future, just tried to take care of the business at hand.. It’s definitely a goal, but it’s not something that’s been a preoccupation or the only thing we’ve been concerned about.”

Assuming they get to the tournament, the Mavericks will preoccupy opponents with their speed.

“Definitely our team speed is one of our strengths,” Joseph said. “Comparatively we have one of the fastest teams in our league and, I guess, in college hockey. We try to emphasize that in the style of hockey we play — up and down the ice, trying to beat people to pucks.”

“We’re an up-tempo team, and I think that gives teams problems,” agreed Jutting. “We don’t like to give up the puck once we get possession of it.”

Puck possession, speed, senior leadership, solid goaltending, playing hard for 65 minutes, and, above all, chemistry: the Mavericks have found a formula for success.