By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Ho-hum- another day and another honor.
On March 27, Dryden McKay was named the College Hockey News Rookie of the Year. Add that honor to previous ones already handed out to the Downers Grove, Ill., native including being named a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award (presented annually to the best goaltender in college hockey), a Second Team All-WCHA selection and a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team, and at this point, McKay might be running out of room in his dorm for all of the awards, certificates and medals that have come his way. The Minnesota State freshman still has room for one more though- a national championship trophy would fit nicely amongst the rest.
When asked about all of the attention coming his way these days, the Maverick netminder just chuckles and takes it in stride. If you truly look at his body of work and where the 21 year-old has come from, that reaction shouldn't surprise anyone.
To a man, if you interview anyone wearing a Minnesota State uniform this season about their dominant 2018-19 campaign - which includes a WCHA regular season and WCHA tournament championship, an NCAA-best 32 wins and a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament - one of the words you will hear is maturity.
Head coach Mike Hastings hasn't shied away from talking about his roster and the fact that every single player has spent time playing junior hockey before arriving on campus. To go one step beyond that, the majority of his players not only played junior hockey before coming to Mankato but many played pivotal roles on their prior teams. Whether it was serving as team captain or winning a junior hockey title, many of the current Mavericks mastered the fine balance of life on and off the ice before skating into the every-changing, and often demanding, world of college hockey. Dryden McKay is one of them.
Even before he played in his first game as a rookie goaltender for one of the most consistent teams in the nation over the past seven years, McKay had plenty of life and game experience under his belt. Two seasons in the NAHL and two more playing for Madison in the USHL gave him 160 games to fine-tune his skills and focus his thoughts. Being a freshman playing college hockey for one of the best teams in the country is one thing but playing goalie for that squad is a challenge above and beyond that. That proposition might send some straight to the bench unless you have been on those kinds of roller coaster rides before.
"It's been kind of a roller coaster season," McKay said. "I played a lot of junior hockey so when I came in, I was used to playing. At the beginning of the season I felt good but things didn't go as well as I wanted them to. I was able to get back in the line-up in December and since that, I finally started playing my game. It's been a fun ride so far. Just looking at our roster, we have a lot of guys that have played juniors and have had a lot of success in juniors. We have multiple guys who have won USHL championships, NAHL championships, BCHL championships, have had Minnesota high school success - just (success at) pretty much every level that's out there. I think when you combine all of that and just taking that extra year or two of juniors to really get prepared for college hockey while also learning to have success and learning how to play a major role on a team; I think a lot of the guys on our team have benefited from that and have taken advantage of that."
Benefited? Yes, that's an accurate statement. McKay started the season by helping the Mavericks win three of their first four games. Still, his performance was not up to his and the coaching staff's standards and the numbers reflected that (4.10 GAA, .878 save percentage). Over the next eight games McKay found himself on the bench watching fellow MSU goalie Mathias Israelsson takes the reins.
During that time period, instead of letting the adversity derail his season, McKay drew on his prior experience and went to work. As he puts it, it wasn't necessarily a technique thing but rather, slowing the game down and finding his comfort zone. It's the type of self-reflection that only maturity brings. On Nov. 24 against Bemidji State McKay stepped back onto the ice, replacing Israelsson less than six minutes into the game. The five-time WCHA Goalie of the Week wasted little time showing Hastings and his teammates that he was back, facing 31 shots and stopping 30 of them.
Fast forward to the present and McKay has now seen action in 28 of the Mavericks past 29 games (with 27 starts) and has started all five of Minnesota State's playoff games. The freshman sensation hasn't given up more than two goals in a game in over two months. Currently 24-6-2 on the season, McKay leads the nation in goals against average among freshman (1.66- second in the nation overall), wins and shutouts and is tied for fifth in the nation in save percentage (.931). His 24 wins and four shutouts are fourth all-time in a single-season in school history.
"I think I have been able to calm my game down," McKay said. "Especially in juniors and definitely early on in the season I was kind of beating myself in plays by getting out of position. I have done a better job of being in the right place and letting pucks hit me as opposed to trying to scramble and make that incredible save. A lot of times it's just being in the right spot. Just calming my game down and being in good positon; that has definitely helped me a lot. Looking back on it I think I kind of got the chance to step back. I got to watch Matias play. He's an older guy and has a polished game. Just watching how he handled the work load and how he handled practice every day I was kind of like okay, that's how you need to do it and how you need to be successful playing the college game. That also gave me some time to work with my goalie coach Brennan Poderzay and we kind of redefined some things in my game."
"He's been great for us all season," added sophomore defenseman Connor Mackey. "At the beginning of the season we knew he was really good but obviously he has been playing his best during the second half. He has been really consistent in goal and has stolen a few games for us; he's just done it all. It's just been awesome to have him back there.
"He does everything well," continued Mackey. "I wouldn't say he is better in one area than the next; he's just solid across the board. Everything you want in a goalie he does- his lateral movement, the way he controls his rebounds. All-around he doesn't seem to have a hole in his game. Other goalies maybe have certain strengths and weaknesses but it's hard to find those with him."
The Providence Friars are looking for one. Providence is Minnesota State's next hurdle and they know that solving McKay will be one of the keys to success if the Friars hope to upset MSU this Saturday in the first round of the East Regional. On the other side of the rink, Hastings and his third-ranked Mavericks plan on protecting their freshman like they have all season, with a dominating brand of defensive hockey that has propelled them to the number three overall seed in the entire NCAA tournament and an early favorite to reach the Frozen Four in Buffalo, New York.
MSU finished the regular season as the number one team in the nation in goals allowed per game (1.70) and are currently on a run where they have allowed just one power play goal in their last eight games (23-of-24 on the penalty kill during that stretch). With so many things in their favor you would think Hasting's squad would be feeling the pressure, after all, the other shoe has to drop one of these days … or does it? You would think that but that's not the case. Maybe it would be for a team who has never been through something like this before? Maybe for a roster who was still finding themselves, on and off the ice? Not this team. Not Dryden McKay.
"I try to look at it like I have nothing to lose," commented McKay. "No one really expected me to be in this position. If you told me a couple of years ago that I would be playing on ESPN as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Regional I think I would have told you you're crazy. I am still looking at it like there is nothing to lose and there is nothing to be nervous about. Just try to keep doing what has gotten me and the rest of the team where we are; try to do my job and give the guys in front of me the opportunity to win the game. They have done that all year and things have worked out pretty well so far."
"He (McKay) knows the task at hand," added Mackey. "He's been doing it for us all year and he's been playing hockey his whole life. I know people talk about the fact that he's a freshman and everything but he's been great all year and he's handled everything that has come at him. We all plan to come together as a team and attack it together. I don't think its pressure; I think it is opportunity. Coach says that this is an opportunity for us and that's how we see it. We have played in big games with trophies on the line in previous seasons so we try to look it as an opportunity and a chance to knock the door down."
"It's something we have discussed since the day after last year's tournament," MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. "We had an opportunity to play a very good Duluth team last year (first round of the NCAA Tournament) and they found a way to move on and we didn't. I thought it was a really good hockey game and both teams laid everything out there but Duluth found a way to move on. We are okay talking about it- those are the facts. We want to move on to new heights and we want to keep moving the program forward. That's what our jobs are and we look forward to having the opportunity to do that. There are quite a few schools out there that don't have this opportunity so we are fortunate to have that. We feel we have earned the opportunity and now we have to take advantage of it."
McKay and the Mavericks have done that all year. Why stop now?