By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
It's uncanny how, when it comes to playoff hockey- when teams across the country prepare for their final push of the season- it almost always circles back to the beginning. Take Minnesota State, for example.
By the time November 25th, 2017 came around, Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings had seen everything he needed to see; he knew his squad was special. The problem was consistency. Up to that point, MSU had excelled against some teams, while at other times, they were missing the bite that was supposed to go with their bark. When they took the ice against the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (yes, the same Bulldogs they play in the first round of the NCAA tournament this evening), Hastings hoped his squad was ready to turn the corner. As it turned out they were- just not quite yet. Playing at Duluth's AMSOIL Arena, the Bulldogs jumped out to an early two-goal lead and never looked back. The 3-1 UMD win dropped the Mavericks' season record to 9-5 overall at the time. Once again it wasn't so much that Minnesota State lost, but more about the up-and-down roller coaster ride Hastings and his team was on at that point.
Looking back on it now, that loss to the Bulldogs just might have been the second-most important moment of the Mavericks' season to date. Whether it was a coincidence or not, Minnesota State moved on from that fateful Saturday night a different team. Easily one of the most talented rosters in the country to begin with, suddenly, the Mavericks' mixture of veterans and newcomers began to gel. Their blueliners quietly became one of the most stable (and dangerous) D-corps in the WCHA and, between the pipes, senior Connor LaCouvee took the reins and ran with them all the way to the top of the league goaltending charts. In other words, Hastings started to see the consistency he was looking for. What has followed has been, quite simply, some of the best hockey in the nation- Minnesota State is an NCAA-best 20-4-1 (.820) in its last 25 games.
Leaving Duluth and skating into their next series with Lake Superior State, Minnesota State dismantled the Lakers, outscoring them 12-1 in the two games. From there, the Mavericks swept Alabama Huntsville, split with Northern Michigan and swept Alaska Anchorage. They didn't stop there. In January, Hastings' crew skated past St. Cloud State on the Huskies' home ice before evening the score with Minnesota Duluth, defeating the Bulldogs 1-0 in Mankato on January 23rd. With every win, the Mavericks' stock around the WCHA, and the country, began to rise. By the time the regular season ended in late February against Bemidji State, MSU had secured the WCHA regular season title and a top-five ranking in the national polls.
"I thought through the second half of the season, we did a good job of just managing our depth," remarked Hastings, who has guided the Mavericks to a program-record six-straight 20-win seasons and an NCAA-best 151 victories during his six-year tenure. "I thought we had different guys at different times contribute; whether that was offensively with our seniors, or a couple of freshmen. The seniors, guys like (C.J.) Suess and (Zeb) Knutson, and then the freshmen with players like (Jake) Jaremko and (Reggie) Lutz. I look at their contributions up front and then at the blue line you had (Daniel) Brickley and (Ian) Scheid, who were pretty consistent throughout the second half, and then two guys who really stepped up as freshmen in (Connor) Mackey and (Riese) Zmolek. We then had a goalie step up in Connor (LaCouvee) and take over the one position. Through that depth and through the leadership of our seniors, that allowed us to put together a good second half."
When dissecting the Mavericks, their firepower on the offensive side of the puck is typically where the conversation begins. Ranked as the top offensive team in the country, MSU has been scoring at a high rate all season; but, especially since their loss to the Bulldogs last November. After that setback, Minnesota State has averaged 4.12 goals per game and outscored their opponents 103-44 (will winning 20 of 25 games). Individually, during that same period, Suess exploded by tallying 27 points (18g-9a), fellow senior Zeb Knutson also collected 27 points (8g-19a), Jaremko registered 26 (12g-14a) en route to WCHA Rookie of the Year honors, sophomore Parker Tuomie led the way with 30 points (8g-22a) and Brickley hit the scoresheet with 25 points (7g-15a). And then there was sophomore Marc Michaelis, who despite missing four contests during that 25-game stretch, scored 26 points (11g-15a); one of the reasons why the First Team All-WCHA selection is second in the league for points per game.
But the Mavericks offense is, and has been, only half of the story. The biggest reason why Hastings' squad made the jump when it did has to do with a perfect storm of moving parts coming together at once. While MSU was busy lighting the lamp at a pace that would make most goal judges develop hand blisters, Minnesota State also found the missing piece they were looking for on the back end. His name is Connor LaCouvee. The British Columbia product played in 12 of the Mavericks' first 21 games, and while he played well, Hastings was still looking for the senior netminder to take the starting job and run with it. In early January, he did exactly that. After entering in the third period of a 5-0 MSU loss Jan. 12 at Alaska, LaCouvee started in Fairbanks the following night, giving up just one goal on 16 shots in a 5-1 triumph. He hasn't taken a break since. From that point forward, LaCouvee has been a staple for the Mavericks in goal and, in the process, has complimented Minnesota State's offense attack with a consistent and calming presence on the other side of the rink. LaCouvee was so good during the second half of the season that he finished first in the WCHA in goals against average, save percentage and win percentage (and enters the NCAA tournament tied for second nationally in wins, while ranking third for GAA).
Things were as close to perfect as possible. Unbeaten in 11-straight games, the Mavericks skated into the WCHA Playoffs with the MacNaughton Cup under their arm and a number-one seed next to their name. During MSU's quarterfinal-round series with Alaska it was more of the same; more goals and more wins. In the two Mavericks victories (8-2 and 6-2, respectively), 12 different players scored a goal and 17 different players collected at least one point in the series. 17! Maybe more impressive was the fact that of the 14 goals scored, ten were five-on-five markers. Statistically the number-one team in the nation on the power play, special teams points have been a given for Hastings this season; but, everyone knows, when it comes to the playoffs, being able to score at even strength can mean the difference between being a pretender and a contender. So can confidence…or, perhaps, over-confidence.
A series rarely defines a season, but can it save one?
In the WCHA semifinals against Michigan Tech two weekends ago, the Mavericks started off on the right foot by taking Game One of the series, 2-1. Still, despite the win, there were some small warning signs. Despite blistering the Tech net, Huskies goalie Devin Kero and the Tech defense were good- really good. The following night in Game Two, the fears became realized for Maverick fans as Michigan Tech evened the series with a 4-2 win.
The most important loss of the season.
"Sometimes after winning 13 or 14 games in a row you start to lose track of some of the little details and maybe it doesn't hurt you during those games. Getting slapped in the face like we did kind of helps you realize what you lost during those 13 or 14 games and that can get us back on track," remarked Suess, when asked about moving forward after the series loss to Tech. "You learn from it. You take the negatives and turn them into positives moving forward."
"To do what Tech did is about as impressive as something I have seen out of a five seed. To go in the first round and win in a very difficult place in Bemidji and then to come to the Verizon Center and beat us two of three and then go to a sold out place in Marquette (Northern Michigan) and pitch a shutout; I think it shows that in our world, in the WCHA, there is a fine line between continuing to play and having your season come to an end," explained Hastings. "The opportunity we have right now to continue to play is one we are trying to take advantage of, as I'm sure Tech is."
No more do-overs.
Suess and his fellow seniors have been through this marathon before. As a freshman in 2014-15, Suess and the then-top seeded Mavericks fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 2-1 to RIT. That season, MSU skated into the NCAA regional on a five-game winning streak and had won six of its last seven before the upset loss. This time around, the WCHA Player of the Year plans to make the most of his squad's sudden jolt back to reality. While it stung to sit back and monitor the WCHA Championship from a distance, it also allowed the Mavericks to refocus and get back to playing Minnesota State hockey. As an example, in the three games against Tech, Suess and Michaelis- two of the Mavericks' top three scorers- were held without a point. Up to that point, that had only happened five times this season.
"Definitely throughout the year, we always wanted to be consistent and would always say no highs and no lows. We try to stay on an even keel as much as possible and always have that ability to check ourselves and look back at every individual game and see what we did good, work on that and never lose track of that. For the most part, our guys have been pretty straight forward when it comes to that," commented Suess. "They have all understood that we can't take a day off; that we can't take a day for granted because other teams are working just as hard and they might pass you by. For the most part, our guys have been focused in on that and have done what we have needed to do. This past week we were reminded of how important that is and I think we are going to use it to our advantage."
"I have seen a renewed focus to the details and now I just hope we can turn that into an execution-based game on Friday against a very good Duluth team," commented Hastings. "When it comes to second opportunities, you have to take advantage of them- and we have one. A lot of other teams out there, once they lost in the (league) playoffs, their season was done. We have to take advantage of this opportunity.
"We used the week to get some rest both mentally and physically. The focus has been good over the last five days and hopefully we can turn that into a positive (tonight). Our leadership group has been very good from start to finish, but I think if you ask them, looking at them in the locker room this past Sunday and being around them a little bit come this past Tuesday, they were disappointed. They had three goals at the end of the year. One was to win the league championship, the second was to win a playoff championship and get to the NCAA tournament and progress and develop more than we have in the past, and then try to get to a Final Four and have an opportunity to play for a national championship. They had lofty goals. They accomplished the first one; the second one we came up short and now we have turned the page moving onto our third goal."
Standing in their way from goal number three is a familiar foe who has already had an impact on the Mavericks' fate this season. Going back to MSU's loss to the Bulldogs last November, a game that seemed to kick Minnesota State's season into high gear (at least on paper), the two teams have been on a collision course ever since. Even though MSU exacted some revenge on UMD this past January by skating away with a 1-0 win, the Bulldogs certainly caught the attention of Hastings and his team right from the very beginning, thanks to a dangerous balance of skill and physical play. The Mavericks know tonight's NCAA tournament first round match-up is going to be a dog fight in every sense of the word.
"They are a good hockey team and they are very well coached. They have some special players. (Peter) Krieger, (Joey) Anderson and (Riley) Tufte are a line that is as good as anyone in college hockey. They are as good of a defensive team you will see; they just don't give up a lot," replied Hastings. "They have great goaltending, their special teams are outstanding and their power play is very good. Then they kill penalties well. You put all of that together and that's a good hockey team. For us, we are going to have to play a good hockey game to beat them."
"It's going to be a great atmosphere. Duluth is going to be a great opponent. We split with them earlier in the year and we know how they play. We still feel that if we stick to our systems and do our thing, we can go far in this tournament," continued Suess. "I really feel that it's all about worrying about what we are going to do. I feel if we stick to our game plan we can do well. We have played with two of the three teams in our bracket earlier this year (Duluth and St. Cloud State) and we did well against them. I feel we can play with anyone out there. As a team we are ready to play against anyone and we have the confidence to do so."
"You always want to leave your legacy on a good note," replied Suess. "I feel for myself, going out and making a difference in each and every game in the tournament, that's really a goal for me. If I can help my team that way, it would be a good way to leave it here."
Four games and counting- at least that's what Suess and his Mavericks hope.
"They are the ones who set the goals for themselves. I think they are looking forward to the opportunity and I think this has been a part of their plan. They have been planning for this and preparing for it throughout the year and they want to take advantage of this opportunity," concluded Hastings. "The group has been real close from day one. I thought our upperclassmen did a great job of bringing in our freshmen and, by December, they were no longer freshmen; they were teammates. I think that's why we finished the way we did in our second half- not the last weekend but over the second half of our season. Our freshmen have continued to grow, and our upperclassmen continue to lead, and we are going to need that on Friday and hopefully beyond."