When Minnesota State gets to its game quickly and when it gets a lead early, look out.
That’s what the Mavericks are hoping to do Thursday when they play St. Cloud State in the first Frozen Four semifinal at PPG Paints Arena.
They’re one of two teams this season with an unblemished record when scoring first. Minnesota State can equal North Dakota’s 19-0 mark if things go to plan against the Huskies.
“We’ve always been a team that worries about the first five minutes and I think it’s going to be the biggest thing for us,” Mavericks junior forward Julian Napravnik said. “Everybody’s probably going to be a little bit nervous to start it off. I think just getting over the first five minutes and playing our game will help us to have a solid game afterward.”
For a group playing its first game in a Frozen Four, taking a lead can go a long way toward calming the nerves. The Mavericks have never been to this point in a season as a Division I program; it’s only the second time for St. Cloud State, and its earlier experience was eight years ago.
Minnesota State was able to overcome a tentative start against Quinnipiac in the NCAA first round but would rather not be in a similar situation against the Huskies.
“The guys are excited. They’re confident in what we do, when we do it,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “The first five, 10 minutes are going to be really important but they are in every single game. So it’s not going to be any different than what it’s been throughout this season. It’ll be something we address but we address it before every game, trying to get to our game as soon as we can.”
Many of the 18 games in which the Mavericks have scored first turned into comfortable victories. Three had one-goal leads that needed to be protected late.
One went to overtime. On Feb. 19, heavily outshot host Ferris State took the lead late in the second period only to have Minnesota State’s Nathan Smith score to make it 4-4 just before the break. After a goalless third period, Reggie Lutz scored in the extra session for the Mavericks.
Minnesota State has proven itself adept at winning games when it falls behind, too; the NCAA first-round game against Quinnipiac is the most recent reminder. The Bobcats led 2-0 after one period and 3-1 midway through the third before goals by Smith and Cade Borchardt forced OT. Ryan Sandelin gave the Mavericks their first NCAA Tournament victory in the extra session.
The 4-0 victory against Minnesota in the Loveland regional championship game reinforced how Minnesota State can stifle opponents when it controls puck possession and makes it difficult for opponents to get to the net. The Mavericks played free and agressive, Hastings said.
“As a team I think we slipped a little bit going into the WCHA playoffs,” senior defenseman Riese Zmolek said. “We found that the second period of the Quinnipiac game — just being hard, physical. Just trying to keep playing on that type of game plan.”
Napravnik, Minnesota State’s leading scorer with 27 points, sees the matchup against St. Cloud State’s big defensemen as a key for Thursday’s game.
“Just working them down low and playing behind them will benefit us,” he said. “They’re a pretty good team. They’re fast and a heavy team just like us so it’s going to be a battle.”