April 5, 2022
by Antoine Travalgia/CHN Reporter (@A_Travalgia)
Since the start of the 2017-18 season, no team has won more games than Minnesota State, earning trips to the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons, despite COVID in 2020.
Unfortunately for the Mavericks, regular season success didn’t translate to NCAA Tournament success, with the Mavericks only reaching the Frozen Four once. Prior to last year’s trip to the Frozen Four, Minnesota State failed to qualify for the first round in 2018 and 2019.
But maybe the Mavericks have looked dominant this season. They stormed out of the gate and didn’t look back, and would lead Boston’s 17-game winning streak heading into the semifinal against Minnesota.
“We’re going to stick with what gets us here and try to use our depth throughout Thursday’s game and try to move into a national championship game,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “We look forward to the opportunity in Boston and what lies ahead.”
Spotlight on… Dryden McKay
Arguments can be made about who is the best goalkeeper in the country. No matter where you stand in this argument, there’s no denying that Dryden McKay is conversation worthy.
McKay finished the season with 10 shutouts for the third consecutive season and in doing so became the all-time leader in the category, passing Ryan Miller. McKay now currently with 34.
“We try to be solid defensively in front of him,” forward Nathan Smith said. “We have enormous confidence knowing that when we score a goal or two we have him behind us as the last layer, so if we make a mistake he will bail us out.”
Minnesota State doesn’t allow many shots each night, but when they do, it’s hard to get the puck past McKay. As Notre Dame saw in the Albany Regional Finals, once you find yourself trailing, finishing any kind of comeback is a tough mountain to climb.
With 112 career wins, McKay is second only to Marty Turco, a former Michigan and NHL player, who won 127 in his four years. Even though success and individual records are good additions to the resume, there is still a great group achievement to add to McKay.
“[A national title] would mean everything, not personally but as a group,” McKay said. “They’re my best friends and it’s been the best four years of my life and I can’t think of a better way to top it off than with a national title.”
4 Defining Moments
Just like this year, Minnesota State was heading to the Frozen Four. While its WCHA Tournament loss to Northern Michigan was an obstacle on the road to Pittsburgh, the Mavericks had their sights set on a bigger prize: a national championship.
But things don’t always go to plan, and the Mavericks fell short in the national semifinals, falling to St. Cloud State with the Huskies’ game-winning goal coming in the final minute of the game.
The pain of last year’s defeat lingers on and has been used as a motivational tool for those who have come back from last year.
“These guys have been through peaks and valleys and I think the valleys are the ones they talk about the most,” Hastings said. “Hopefully at the end of this period they will talk about the heights they are reaching.”
Minnesota State started the season with six non-conference games, all against opponents who, as expected, turned out to be some of the best teams in the country.
For starters, the Mavericks traveled to Massachusetts to take on the defending national champions, a weekend that saw Minnesota State earn its first sweep of the year.
From there, the Mavericks shared a weekend with St. Cloud, then defeated Providence and lost to Michigan, 3-2.
With a daunting slate of six games to start the season before heading into conference play, it was a start that set the tone for what Minnesota State was able to do for the rest of the season, losing three times since.
“Even though we lost to a really good Michigan team in Game 6 of those first six games, I think it was a good start for us,” Hastings said. “It’s so important what you do outside of the conference. When we got off to a good start, it gave us the opportunity to hopefully be better than that.
No Hastings, no Smith, no problem
When the NHL decided it would not send players to China for the Olympics, the door opened again for college players and coaches. Both Hastings and Smith left Minnesota State for a few weeks, with Smith representing Team USA as a player, Hastings as an assistant coach.
In total, Hastings and Smith missed two series, one with Bowling Green and one with Bemidji State. Without their leading scorer and head coach, the Mavericks had no problems, sweeping both series by a combined score of 18-3.
Controversy in Mankato
While winning the CCHA Tournament was far more important for Bemidji State — which needed a win to earn a ticket to the NCAA Tournament — it was still a big milestone for Minnesota State, especially after the last year’s stunning loss in the WCHA semi-finals.
We are well aware of how the CCHA Championship ended and ended again, with Minnesota State ultimately winning twice in overtime.
Having to come back after such a high, refocus on the task at hand, and get the job done again, ultimately ticking another box, it showed the resilience of this Mavericks team.
Players to watch
In a weekend that will feature multiple NHL draft picks, Mankato’s Nathan Smith might be the most underrated of the bunch.
As deep as Minnesota State’s forward depth is, its offensive firepower starts with Smith, who finished the season second with 50 points.
Smith scored the only goal of the game in Minnesota State’s regional win over Notre Dame and was by far the Mavericks’ best skater.
For as much credit as Nathan Smith gets for the Mavericks’ offensive success, teammate Julian Napravnik is right behind him, literally and figuratively.
Napravnik comes into Boston with a stat line nearly identical to Smith’s, with Smith’s goal against Notre Dame being the only difference.
After a 10-goal campaign last season, Napravnik almost doubled his goalscoring output with 18, increasing his shots-per-game average from 3.0 to 3.4 in the process.
Napravnik, along with Smith and Cade Borchardt, give Minnesota State arguably the best line in the Frozen Four.
On the line chart of the Mavericks, you find the name of Ondrej Pavel on the fourth line. In a team rich in skillful forwards, Pavel is not your typical fourth understudy.
The second failed to score in the 11 games he played last year, but now, in a more impactful role, Pavel has made the most of his opportunity.
Pavel’s game grew over the year, scoring twice in Minnesota State’s decisive win over St. Thomas in the CCHA Quarterfinals and again in their regional win over Harvard.
He has 11 goals on the year.
“He’s really stepped up his game here over the last month,” Hastings said. “He’s tough, he’s great on face-offs. He’s a ‘we’ guy, not a ‘me’ guy all day and they’re guys who are making the difference for you right now.