This Week in WCHA Hockey: Minnesota State, including team’s ‘old guys,’ oozing confidence after sweeping Bowling Green

Minnesota State players are all smiles after scoring a goal in last weekend’s sweep over Bowling Green (photo: David Faulkner/SPX Sports).

It would be unwise to call anything that has happened in the 2020-21 WCHA season “definitive.”

Some teams in the league have played 12 conference games. Some have played just four. Most are somewhere in between.

Despite those caveats, Minnesota State made a big statement last weekend against Bowling Green. In the first (and only) regular-season series between the consensus two top teams in the conference, the Mavericks swept the Falcons in fairly convincing fashion. They won 4-1 and 5-0, showing off their depth and their defensive prowess in the process.

“We sat down as a staff prior to the weekend and thought, ‘We’re going to learn something about our group here,’ just because Bowling Green’s got a very similar team with a lot of veteran guys who have had a lot of success,” said Todd Knott, MSU’s associate head coach.

Knott and the rest of the MSU coaching staff left satisfied. It was a weekend in which five of the team’s nine seniors scored (Dallas Gerads, Walker Duehr, Riese Zmolek, Jared Spooner and Reggie Lutz). Dryden McKay, who was given the weekend off in the previous weekend’s 4-1 loss at Bemidji State, returned and stopped 50 shots on the weekend.

“After the weekend, we’re thrilled with how our guys responded, especially with our old guys,” Knott said. “We had (five) of the nine seniors score goals over the course of the weekend. And you need contributions throughout the entire lineup to be successful, but on those types of weekends, we’ve found that it’s usually our old guys that have to find a way. Between Lutz and Zmolek and Spooner, and obviously great goaltending by Dryden.”

Knott was also keen to point out how well MSU’s depth was key in beating the Falcons. He singled out specifically the line featuring Spooner, Duehr and sophomore forward Brendan Furry, who have been playing well the past month. None of the three players on that line would necessarily be considered the Maverick’s top players (at the very least, none of them are in the top 10 on the team in points), but Knott called them valuable parts of the team.

“(Depth) was everything. Specifically on Saturday, I thought we had a lot of balance,” Knott said. “And when you look at the line with Spooner, Furry and Duehr, they’ve been the one constant. They’ve been a sparkplug for us every night for the past four, five games.”

That line has scored at least one goal in five of the last six games, but the Mavericks will be without Spooner for at least this weekend’s series against Alabama Huntsville, after the injury he suffered as the result of a late hit at the hands of Bowling Green’s Will Cullen. Cullen was suspended three games by the WCHA for the hit.

The BG series was quite the change from the series in Bemidji, in which the Mavericks outshot the Beavers 36-10 and still lost. MSU had five power play opportunities — including a five-minute major — and couldn’t convert on any of them.

Minnesota State senior defenseman Jack McNeely said that was the main point of emphasis for the Mavericks when prepping to play the Falcons, and it paid off. They went 2 for 4 on the man-advantage in Friday’s game and held BGSU off the board. The Mavericks also managed to play better defense — especially the forwards.

“Our special teams played really well, which was big for us,” McNeely said. “I think (we were also) playing hard on their forwards. Our forwards did a good job of blocking shots from their defensemen. Obviously, it helps with Dryden making those big saves. We were prepared to defend hard and make it hard on their forwards.”

The Mavericks blocked 37 shots against the Falcons, compared to just six in their game against the Beavers.

“It was a great team effort,” Knott said. “It wasn’t always pretty. I thought both teams competed real hard. There wasn’t a lot of open ice. It was a playoff-type intensity, and we found a way both nights.”

The burning question now, at least for fans and followers of the Mavericks and the WCHA, is how and when we might see a rematch of these teams in the playoffs.

Other leagues have announced theirs — the NCHC will be playing a single-elimination tournament with all eight teams in North Dakota. But so far, the WCHA currently doesn’t have a concrete plan in place.

Has that changed how the Mavericks are preparing for this stretch run of the season?

“It does somewhat,” Knott said, but noted that the players aren’t being asked to think about anything other than the game ahead. “This year’s been so out of whack anyway. (MSU head coach Mike Hastings) does a great job leading to make sure our guys are worried about one thing and that’s today. We learned that real quick last year.”

Knott then relayed the story of what happened last year just before the Mavericks were set to play in their WCHA semifinal playoff series — which was supposed to be against Michigan Tech.

“Last year, we were pulling up into the parking lot, and Coach Hastings asked me a question: If we should think about having two games (single elimination) and playing the championship that weekend instead of waiting another week. I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Nah, I don’t think we should do that.’

“But by the end of that day, the NCAA tournament was shut down. We’re lucky to be playing right now, so we’re just going to take it one day at a time.”

Huskies finish long road trip

Michigan Tech’s two-week, seven-game road trip finally ended this week with a 2-1 win against Ferris State.

The Huskies, who haven’t been back in Houghton since January, certainly put the miles on in 10 days. Their journey started in Bowling Green, where they lost both games of their series to the Falcons. They were scheduled to head to Alabama the next weekend in order to play Alabama Huntsville, but they also needed to make up a series against Ferris State that had been originally scheduled for the week of Jan. 15 but was unable to be played at the time due to COVID-19 protocols for Tech.

That’s when the Huskies got creative. They decided the easiest plan to get the games in would be to travel right from Ohio to Big Rapids, Mich., for a single Tuesday afternoon game on Feb. 2. Tech won that game, 6-4, THEN made the long trip down to Huntsville, where they swept the Chargers.

On the return trip to Houghton, the Huskies made ANOTHER put stop on Big Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Once again, they beat the Bulldogs — this time by a score of 2-1 — to finish the road trip with a 5-2 record.

To top it all off, the Huskies are set to play at home in Houghton this weekend for the first time since Jan. 23. Their opponents?

You guessed it! Ferris State.