It’s a rare NCAA tournament appearance for the Minnesota State University Mankato hockey team, but first-year coach Mike Hastings stopped short of calling it a surprise.
The Mavericks have earned their second NCAA berth since becoming a Division I program in 1996-97 and will face Miami in a Midwest Regional semifinal Saturday at the Huntington Center in Toledo.
“I think you go with goals,” Hastings said Monday afternoon in a phone interview from Mankato, located about 75 miles southwest of Minneapolis. “We’ve got a lot of respect for the (Western Collegiate Hockey Association), and our goal was to get home ice in the tournament and we did that.
“Then our goal was to get to the Final Five, and we had that opportunity. Then we hoped our body of work would be solid enough to give us an opportunity to go play in the NCAA tournament, and that’s happened. So we’re still on path and trying to take advantage of the opportunity to play at this time of year.”
The school formerly known as Mankato State (it received name-change approval from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities board in September, 1998) is Division II in most sports, but plays at the Division I level in men’s and women’s hockey.
The men’s team is 24-13-3 this season, finishing in a three-way tie for fourth place during the WCHA regular season. The purple-and-gold Mavericks, who have eight freshmen and eight sophomores on their roster, got bounced out of the WCHA tournament last Thursday with a 7-2 loss to Wisconsin.
“It’s a team that’s kind of been a work in progress from Day 1,” said Hastings, the associate head coach at Nebraska Omaha for three years before coming to MSU. “We’ve kind of hung our hat on a couple of seniors that have done a great job of leading. We’re a team that prides itself on controlling what we can control, and that’s work ethic and discipline. We’re a team that likes to play with pace.”
Those seniors are forward Eriah Hayes and defenseman Tyler Elbrecht. Hayes has 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists) and ranks second in the country with 13 power-play goals.
Matt Leitner is tied for ninth nationally in points with 47 (17 goals, 30 assists), and Jean-Paul Lafontaine has 35 (nine goals, 26 assists). They are sophomore forwards.
“If we have a strength, it might be in our group of forwards,” said Hastings, noting that his team has been adjusting to the National Hockey League ice dimensions (85 feet by 200 feet) at rinks like the Huntington Center. The Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato is a 100-by-200 setup.
Freshman goalie Stephon Williams has a .925 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-allowed average. The Mavericks are tied for 12th in the nation on defense, giving up 2.38 goals per contest, and tied for 10th on offense (3.17).
This is just the second winning season for MSU in the last 10 years (2007-08 was the other). The Mavericks’ previous NCAA appearance resulted in a 5-2 loss to Cornell in 2002-03.
Hastings said he knows a few things about Miami from his time at Nebraska Omaha.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Rico (Blasi) and Miami’s program and what they’ve stood for over the last few years,” Hastings said. “I think the ability of Miami to defend speaks for itself. The numbers between the posts are exceptional.”