This is the third of four team previews for the teams that have reached the Frozen Four this week in Pittsburgh.
Season record: 22-4-1
How they got to Pittsburgh: Beat Quinnipiac 4-3 in overtime in the West Regional semifinal, beat Minnesota 4-0 in West Regional final
Top players: junior forward Julian Napravnik (10-17-27), sophomore forward Cade Borchardt (9-15-24), sophomore forward Nathan Smith (7-16-23), senior forward Reggie Lutz (10-11-21)
Top goalie: junior Dryden McKay (21-3-0, 1.39 GAA, .931 SV%)
Why they will win the national championship: At this point, they’ve already exorcised one demon. Just winning a game in the NCAA tournament was a big step for the Mavericks, who were previously 0-6 all time in the postseason in their Division I era.
But by beating instate rivals Minnesota — handily — in the regional final was a heck of an encore and a big statement that this team is for real. Maybe most encouraging is that MSU’s goal scorers in the regionals weren’t necessarily their big stars. If they can get that scoring depth to click in Pittsburgh, there’s no reason why they can’t win it all.
Why they will not win the national championship: Last week we mentioned that the Mavs’ slow starts could be their Achilles’ Heel.
It nearly stopped their tourney run before it started. MSU was down 2-0 to Quinnipiac after one period in their first-round game. They did manage to rally and tie the game from down 3-1 with two goals in the third period, but against the stronger teams left in the Frozen Four, it’s going to be a lot harder for the Mavericks to claw back from an early deficit like that.
For the past decade, Minnesota State has largely been regarded as one of the model programs of college hockey. In the past 10 years, they have won six conference championships, three conference tournament titles and appeared in six NCAA tournaments. Four Mavericks have been named All-Americans. They’ve constantly been ranked in the top five in the country.
Before this season, only one thing had eluded them: A NCAA tournament win.
But now that’s in the past. The Mavericks won the NCAA West Regional in Loveland, winning their first tournament game, their first regional championship and their first Frozen Four appearance. Not a bad way to get a few monkeys off your back. MSU rallied to beat Quinnipiac in overtime to win their first game before blanking Minnesota to earn their first Frozen Four berth.
“Obviously we hadn’t won an NCAA game, and to be able to find a way after putting ourselves in the spot that we were in,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. “To find a way to get back and get our first win and then put together the game we put together on Sunday to give us the opportunity to be in the Frozen Four was a very big step for our program.”
Another big step for Minnesota State was announced just days after their Frozen Four berth. Junior goaltender Dryden McKay was named one of three Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalists — another first for Minnesota State.
McKay has recorded 10 shutouts this season and won the WCHA goaltending championship this season with a goals against average of 1.07. He’s only the second goaltender in WCHA history to win three consecutive goaltending titles. (The other one was a guy named Tony Esposito.)
“If there’s one word I can throw out with Dryden other than calm and collected, would be ‘consistent,’” Hastings said. “He’s been our most consistent player over the last two years.”
That description, though, can apply to the Mavericks as a team in addition to McKay as an individual. MSU doesn’t have anybody with insane goal scoring numbers, but what they do have are a lot of players with seven, eight and nine goals. They have four 20-point scorers and eight more in double-digits.
Rarely this season has MSU been completely out of a game. They only lost four times the entire season, and the only game in which they looked totally outclassed was in the WCHA semifinal game against Northern Michigan on March 19. NMU won 5-1 in a game that wasn’t that close. McKay was pulled in the second period.
Hastings said losing that game was a wakeup call for his team.
“We lose to Northern Michigan in the semifinals here in our own building, and we weren’t thinking about going to the Frozen Four, we were thinking about picking the pieces up and going back to our game,” Hastings said. “As you saw, even in the weekend in Loveland, it took us a little while to get back there. Quinnipiac jumped on us right away and we had to play from behind. And as the game went on, we found our identity a little bit. Then after the first game we put together a really good game on Sunday.”
Playing against a team like St. Cloud State at the Frozen Four this week will be tricky. The Mavericks and the Huskies know each other well as instate rivals, and Hastings is friendly with St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson. But at the end of the day, for Hastings it will be about doing what the Mavericks do.
“We’ve got an idea of what’s going on in St. Cloud and what they’re doing, but at the end of the day we try and focus on what we’re doing and our preparation,” Hastings said. “We’re going to stay true to what we are that way. We’ll try and make sure we give the guys we give them the information that they need, tendencies and that sort of thing, but at the end of the day we have to go out and play our game.”
The Mavericks will now carry the banner for the WCHA in its final season as a men’s league. MSU’s failures to win a tournament game in the past could have been read by some as an indictment of the league. But this season, the league had the best showing it’s had since realignment.
Aside from MSU’s success, Bemidji State also surprised many with their big win over Wisconsin as a No. 4 seed. Lake Superior State was knocked out in the first round by UMass but were one of the best teams in the conference down the stretch. All three teams will be playing in the CCHA next season.
“I think it opened some people’s eyes to what we do in our league,” Hastings said of the WCHA. “It’s a tough league to play in and we’re showing it right now. Hopefully we can continue to do that not only for the league moving forward but for ourselves as a program.”