Hopefully, the men's hockey schedule-makers in the WCHA and at Minnesota State Mankato invested heavily in pencils and erasers this season because writing any dates and matchups down in ink has been met almost immediately by a "reschedule that'' command from COVID-19.
Of the Mavericks' 11 series from Nov. 20 through January on the revised WCHA schedule that was announced in late October, only one – the Jan. 15-16 trip to Lake Superior State – was played on the exact dates listed. Coach Mike Hastings and his Mavericks have endured postponements, cancellations and adjustments, all the while fashioning a 9-2-1 record amid unplanned breaks of 14, 11 and 12 days caused by COVID-19 issues across the league. Minnesota State went so far as to schedule the Milwaukee School of Engineering, a Division III program, only to have the Raiders quickly drop out because of the coronavirus.
A sense of some normalcy is scheduled to resume Friday and Saturday at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center when the Mavericks, ranked sixth in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, face No. 8 Bowling Green (16-4) in the biggest WCHA series of the season so far. Hastings knows the importance of the series – the Mavericks are 6-0 in conference play; the Falcons are 5-1 – but doesn't want to overemphasize it.
"A series like this at this time of the year with this on the line as far as points, standings, trying to put yourself in a position to have the opportunity to hang a banner, this place would have been hopping,'' Hastings said. "There would have been 5,000 a night, and there would have been a lot of eyes upon us in the building. I still think there's going to be a lot of attention with the series nationally, league-wide. It's a great opportunity for both teams to show themselves.''
The Mavericks will play in front of home fans – limited to 150 family members of players — for the first time this season. What they have shown so far is they're still the WCHA's top team, despite the losses of standouts Marc Michaelis, Parker Tuomie and Connor Mackey from last year's team that went 31-5-2 and had serious national championship aspirations before sports shut down because of COVID-19.
"We might not be as top-heavy as we were a year ago,'' Hastings said, "… but I do like our depth. I'm hoping we can continue to rely on our depth because we're going to need it.''
Hastings certainly loves his goaltending, too, because he has one of the nation's best in junior Dryden McKay, a returning first-team All-America selection who was a finalist for the Mike Richter Award, given to the nation's top goalie, and top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player. This week, the Downers Grove, Ill., native named after Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, was named to the Richter watch list again, nominated for the Hobey Baker and selected as the Goaltender of the Month for January by the Hockey Commissioners Association. McKay is 9-1 with a nation's-best numbers in goals-against average (0.90), save percentage (.954) and shutouts (six).
"Anytime you can get individual recognition by the media or your peers, it's humbling,'' said McKay, who has 20 career shutouts, tied for third in NCAA history behind Ryan Miller's record of 26 for Michigan State from 1999 to 2002. "You're happy to get it, but you can't let it get in your head too much because you still have the task at hand. It's nice, but there's still a lot of hockey left to play.''
That resumes with Bowling Green, which features a trio of former Lakeville North standouts – Max Johnson, Taylor Schneider and Garrett Daly – and is coached by former Rosemount and Brainerd coach Ty Eigner. The Falcons won 12 of their first 13 games before dropping three of four to Bemidji State in January.
"It'll be a good test for us,'' McKay said. "All our games against Bowling Green are pretty emotional, high-intensity games, and there's a lot on the line this year, so it'll be fun.''
The Mavericks will try to rebound from a 4-1 nonconference loss at Bemidji State last Friday, a game in which McKay sat out to rest. The series, McKay said, is another step for Minnesota State to take on its quest for that elusive NCAA championship.
"We want nothing more than to have that opportunity this year. It was taken from us last year,'' he said. "Our first step is to try to win the league and win another MacNaughton Cup and go the playoffs and have a good showing there. Hopefully, our record and tale of the tape is good enough to give us a shot in the [NCAA] tournament. Then we've just got to come up big.''