The Gophers argued that one game or one weekend isn’t enough to make a statement, leading up to Friday’s high-stakes matchup. Minnesota State Mankato will kindly disagree after Friday night’s 4-2 victory over the No. 17 Gophers in the first round of the North Star College Cup.
Minnesota State had plenty to prove coming into the unofficial college hockey state tournament boasting the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history. The Mavericks’ 18 wins put them on top of the polls, but none of those victories carried the weight tied to this first-round showdown.
A big stage at Xcel Energy Center and an opponent that had traditionally claimed in-state dominance wasn’t too much for the Mavericks to handle.
“It’s definitely a statement,” Minnesota State senior forward Matt Leitner said after dishing out two assists. “We’ve been one-and-done in the [NCAA] tournament, and it’s these kinds of stages where we’ve got to work on having success. And every time you play an in-state rival like the Gophers, it was kind of circled on our calendar. … It’s a big steppingstone for our group here.”
Bryce Gervais had two goals and an assist for the Mavericks (19-4-1), who advance to Saturday’s championship game against WCHA rival Bemidji State. Jon Jutzi had a goal and assist, and Casey Nelson and Leitner each had two assists. Goaltender Stephon Williams finished with 20 saves.
Seth Ambroz and Michael Brodzinski scored for the Gophers, who will play Minnesota Duluth in the consolation game.
The Gophers (11-8-2) were missing production from their top scorers throughout the night. Senior captain Kyle Rau went into the third period without a shot on goal, leading goal-scorer Connor Reilly had just two all night, and senior forward Sam Warning had a plus-minus of minus-3.
Even the Gophers’ nation-best power play wasn’t effective. The Mavericks’ top-10-rated penalty kill held the Gophers to 0-for-4 on the power play, while their special teams produced a power-play goal late in the second period.
Minnesota State’s top end had no problem producing under the spotlight. Leading goal-scorer Gervais increased his season total to 15, and Leitner assisted on his 20th and 21st of the season.
Gervais muscled his way into the front the crease and finished Leitner’s crafty backhand assist while falling, tying the score 1-1 in the final seconds of the first period.
The Mavericks responded again midway through the second period when freshman C.J. Franklin took back the lead on a breakaway. Dylan Margonari split two Gophers defensemen with a pass deep from the Mavericks’ defensive zone to set up Franklin. Jutzi added another pretty goal five minutes later.
“Same old mistakes for us,” Gophers senior Travis Boyd said. “We’re giving up goals the same way. We’re making the same mistakes over and over again. Eventually we’ve got to learn from it, otherwise, you know what, it’s just going to be the same thing every weekend.”
The Gophers saw a glimmer of hope late in the third period when they went on a 6-on-4 power play and even drew a penalty shot.
Williams pushed the goal off the moorings to stop the game after Nelson was hit in the head with the puck while trying to block a shot on the power play. The delay of game penalty gave the Gophers an option between adding to their power power or taking a penalty shot with 1:13 left in the game. Coach Don Lucia took his chances with a penalty shot and Williams stuffed Ambroz to end any hope of a Gophers' comeback.
"I think it's an important win," Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. "I think this tournament is special. I think it's good for the people in the state. It was nice being able to look across the rink [at Xcel] and see purple and gold."