|At 16-12-4, Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting is trying to get his Mavericks back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
When college hockey fans and media pundits refer to the WCHA, they usually mention Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Denver and Colorado College. These are usually the schools you will find finishing in the top four of one of the toughest conferences in the country during the past five years.
But this season, the fourth spot is up for grabs, and an unlikely candidate is making a push for that spot. The Minnesota State Mavericks (16-12-4) are finally getting the national and in-conference recognition they have desired since joining the WCHA in 1999 and becoming a Division I program in 1996. The Mavericks were ranked ninth in the nation in the most recent polls and 11th in the current Pairwise rankings heading into a 4-2 loss to Nebraska-Omaha Tuesday night.
Despite the loss to Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota State enters this weekend's two-game set at Colorado College tied for fifth in the WCHA with St. Cloud State one point back of the fourth place Wisconsin Badgers. Minnesota State hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2002-03 when they went 20-11-10. But they have a chance to reach that 20-win plateau again and they're finally getting the respect that the WCHA perennial powerhouses get every year.
“I think everyone's excited around here and we're happy with how the season has gone thus far,” said Troy Jutting, who is in his eighth season as coach of the Mavericks.
As far as people taking notice of his team's efforts and the program, Jutting pointed to how young the program is.
“We understand that it takes time because we're a fairly young program both in the league and as a Division I team,” Jutting said.
“We've only been in the league for nine seasons now and we became a Division I team 12 years ago. I think part of the respect factor is that you have to earn your respect. We're playing in a league that has teams that were established 50-plus years ago and we're just trying to do the best we can to earn the respect of those programs and prove that we belong at this level.”
Jutting has had to depend heavily on a young, but experienced, sophomore core. Sophomore forward Trevor Bruess leads the team with 25 points, and junior forward Mick Berge has 21 points. Between the pipes, junior Mike Zacharis is 15-9-4 with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
“Our sophomore group is very big class and we play seven to eight sophomore forwards a game,” Jutting said. “They gained experience as freshmen last season and they're obviously the heart and soul of our team in terms of depth and numbers.”
But while the sophomores dominate the roster, Jutting has had leadership help from his juniors and seniors. Senior captain Joel Hanson (20 points) and juniors Berge and forward Jon Kalinski (13 points), have contributed in the dressing room too.
“They're our leaders and have done a nice job of helping out not only on the scoreboard but with teaching our young kids what college hockey is all about. Two seniors, Joel Hanson and RJ Linder in particular, have done a superb job of filling that leadership role. When you have a young group like we do, it's extremely important to have guys like that help the way they do. Not only have they played really well but they have helped lead the way with the young core and taught that sophomore group how to lead.”
Another key to the Mavericks' success this season has been the play of Zacharis.
“Mike has done a great job for us this season,” Jutting said. “I think any time in hockey to have a successful season you're going to have to get good goaltending. Mike struggled in the past a bit with consistency, but this season he's been consistent from start to finish.
“He's a guy now that our kids can lean on and know that a goal here or there isn't going to make a break the game, kids have a lot of confidence in him and he has confidence in himself now as well.”
After what promises to be a tough two games at Colorado College, the Mavericks return home to face Michigan Tech in the final two games of the regular season. Jutting said his team realizes they have a great shot at positioning themselves for the WCHA tournament and the NCAAs, but they are focused on the tasks at hand. He has been impressed with his team's ability to not let the sudden attention distract them.
“We've always said to make sure you're better tomorrow than you are today, but I think this group has done a good job of trying to improve and at the same time not get ahead of ourselves,” Jutting said.
“We know that the league is tight and in two weeks you can go from fourth to seventh. So our kids have done a good job of keeping things in perspective and appreciating what got us here.”
On Campus Clips -- New Hampshire became the first team to win a regular season conference title last weekend when they captured the Hockey East crown with a two-game sweep of Boston College. The No. 3 Wildcats have 36 points in Hockey East action with a 17-4-2 conference record. They are 8-0-1 in their last nine games and haven't lost since Jan. 19. … Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg has been named one of 11 finalists for the prestigious James E. Sullivan Memorial Award. Presented annually since 1930 by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the Sullivan Award honors the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. Lerg is 19-8-5 with a 2.25 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. He leads the nation in minutes played among netminders. … A Minnesota State Senate committee approved a $1 billion public works bonding bill Tuesday which included funding for three Division I hockey arenas. Most notably, $22 million in funding was approved for the Bemidji Regional Events Center, which would include a new hockey arena for the BSU Beavers. It was widely considered, including by the school itself, that a new arena was needed in order to maintain the viability of the men's hockey program. Also approved was $40 million in funding for the renovation and expansion of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, home of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Built in 1966, the DECC currently holds approximately 5,300 for hockey. The renovations would expand that to 6,500. St. Cloud State's National Hockey Center will get $10 million to remodel and expand. Also, $10 million was granted to fund a new arena for the Minnesota-Crookston Division III team. The measure still requires final approval of the legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
NHL.com's Top 10
1. Michigan (26-4-4)
2. North Dakota (21-8-2)
3. New Hampshire (21-7-2)
4. Colorado College (23-8-3)
5. Miami (28-6-1)
6. Michigan State (21-9-5)
7. Denver (21-10-1)
8. Boston College (16-9-7)
9. Minnesota State (16-12-4)
10. Clarkson (18-10-4)