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Friday, March 22, 2013


Minnesota State has had varsity men's hockey since the 1969-70 season and has had NCAA Division I hockey since 1996-97.
And during the course of its Division I-era, we can point to one MSU team that has made it to the NCAA postseason tournament.  This team, as we talk about quite often, was the team from 2002-03.  That year was memorable for many reasons. 
The Mavericks of a decade ago finished with a 20-11-10 mark and ranked second in the final Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings with a 15-6-7 record.  At one point MSU went unbeaten in a school-record 17 straight games. A pair of dynamic forwards from Alberta combined for 128 points and earned All-America honors in Shane Joseph (29 goals, 36 assists for 65 points) and Grant Stevenson (27 goals, 36 assists for 63 points). Captain B.J. Abel, who was named the team's Most Valuable Player at the end of the year, totalled 12-24--36 and four other forwards hit double digits for goals in Cole Bassett (14), Brock Becker (14), Adam Gerlach (13) and Dana Sorenson (12). The MSU blueline corps was solid with veterans Joe Bourne and Pete Runkle anchoring a heady and steady group. And early on the coaching staff, which consisted of head coach Troy Jutting along with assistants Darren Blue and Eric Means, found a goaltending formula that saw Jon Volp play one game one night and Jason Jensen the next. 
A nonconference home win and road tie with Nebraska Omaha set up a home WCHA first-round best-of-three play-off series in Mankato with the University of Wisconsin.  The Mavericks won the first game 2-1 before Stevenson's goal at 1:21 of the second overtime period sent the Badgers packing in game two.
MSU fell in overtime to the University of Minnesota in the first game of the WCHA Final Five, then dropped a 6-4 decision to Minnesota Duluth in the third-place game the following day.  The Mavericks made the 2002-03 tournament as the 16th seed and headed for the East regional in Providence, R.I., for a first-round game against top-seeded Cornell where, led by future National Hockey League stand-outs Matt Moulson and Doug Murray, the Big Red overcame the Mavericks 5-2.
A lot of this sounds familiar, in a Back to the Future-kind of way.
For example, the long unbeaten streak.  This year's squad, led by first-year head coach Mike Hastings, got off to a pedestrian 3-5-2 start before reeling off a seven-game winning streak. Skill? A trio of forwards in sophomores Matt Leitner (17-30--47) and Jean-Paul Lafontaine (9-26--35) and senior Eriah Hayes (20-16--35) stand atop a scoring chart that boasts an offense that includes a nation-leading 44 power play goals. Secondary scoring abounds with another 11 players in double-digit scoring after the top three. The defensive group has a pair of point producers in Zach Palmquist and Josh Nelson and rangy shut-down types such as Tyler Elbrecht and Brett Stern. And goaltending-wise, the parallel between this year and back then has been that freshman Stephon Williams, the 2012-13 WCHA Goaltending Champion and WCHA Rookie of the Year, has been, not unlike the Volp-Jensen combo of yesteryear, consistently good. All this has led to an unprecented season with a record 24 wins and new heights in the national rankings. 
It took three games for the Mavericks to dispatch Nebraska Omaha in a league play-off series played in Mankato in the middle of March. And not unlike 2002-03, the 2012-13 version bowed out in its first game of the WCHA tournament, this time with a loss to the University of Wisconsin. 
This weekend the Mavericks will find out where they go for NCAA Regional action. And while there's a sense that there are similarities between this year's team and the one which made the program's first appearance in the NCAA postseason party, this will also signify an opportunity for the guys from the school in southern Minnesota to create a new identity for their hockey program.
Can't wait to see how this turns out.
It's great to be a Maverick!

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