Mike Hastings’ explanation for his team’s slow start began with laughter. There was no joy behind this reaction, instead disbelief and disappointment.
“We didn’t even get out of the dock,” the Minnesota State Mankato men’s hockey coach said. “It took a while.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia knows the feeling: It took his team three weeks to get a win.
The in-state rivals were two of the coldest teams in college hockey two weeks into the season. They were a combined 0-7, shut out six times and totaled just three goals during that stretch. Both fell from their top 10 national standings to unranked.
Their motors finally kicked in late in October and these Minnesota hockey programs are once again following a similar path. Both teams are winning again.
This weekend their paths will meet in a home-and-home series that starts Friday night in Mankato and ends Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
“They started slow like we did,” Lucia said, “and all the sudden they’ve won five out of six and we’ve won three out of four, so both teams seem to be playing better.”
The shared emphasis on avoiding more setbacks puts extra weight on the in-state rivalry. This series is also the first time since the Gophers will play in Mankato since leaving the WCHA.
“There’s a lot riding on the weekend,” Hastings said. “We’ve made some progress here in the last month. … [But] I’m still trying to make sure we get this bus going down the right lane.”
The expectations for the Mavericks were high entering the season. They were ranked No. 6 in the preseason polls, but started with a thud, losing an exhibition game to Alberta and then getting swept by nationally ranked Omaha and St. Cloud State in the first two weeks.
This was unexpected for a team that lost two All-Americas and its goaltender from last season’s No. 1-ranked team but still has 14 upperclassmen on its roster.
Now they’re outside of the top 20, trying to claw their way back in.
“It was kind of scary,” said junior defenseman Casey Nelson, the Mavericks leading scorer (three goals, six assists). “We were 0-4 and were going into a hard building to play in [at Bemidji State], but came out with two wins. … That’s where it started and we know what we can do now.
“We’re rolling now and the guys are starting to grow together, and the freshmen are starting to get more comfortable.”
The same could be said for the Gophers. Lucia’s team is built even more on young talent, and last weekend’s split at Notre Dame showed progress. They scored three goals in the third period to pull away for a 4-1 victory in the second game.
“It was probably the most complete game we’ve played all season,” Lucia said. “It was just part of the process.
“Mike [Guentzel, the Gophers associated head coach] told the guys after, that they showed the way that we have to play for us to be successful and they showed that they can do that.
“Now the question is: Can we become consistent night-in and night-out? That’s the next challenge.”