When you look at Minnesota State Mankato’s hockey roster, the variety jumps out. The Mavericks have players from 10 states, three Canadian provinces and Germany.
And when you look at the MSU Mankato’s makeup, you see a veteran group, with 19 of its 28 players age 22 or older, nine 23 or older and only one younger than 21.
Mavericks coach Mike Hastings is making the most of those qualities, putting together a team that enters this weekend’s home series against Ferris State with a 23-7 record, a seven-game winning streak and the No. 5 position in the PairWise Ratings.
“When you can return some older guys who not only are good hockey players, but are good leaders in your locker room, it allows you to get off to a good start,’’ said Hastings, whose team averages a nation’s-best 3.90 goals per game and sits in second place in the WCHA, one point behind Northern Michigan. “When you have that leadership, when you hit that bump in the road, you have some important [player] voices in there spreading the same ideas and philosophies that you are.’’
The Mavericks have hit few bumps this season, with their longest losing streak being two games. They’ve done so with a roster that features six players with more than 20 points, and their co-leading scorers are a pair of seniors who show just how valuable that roster variety can be.
C.J. Suess, of Forest Lake, is one of 11 Minnesotans on the Mavericks roster. A fifth-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, Suess turned down a chance to sign with the NHL team after last season, with an eye on the chance for a special senior campaign that could lead to the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul.
“I’ve seen this one coming for four years now,’’ said Suess, who has a team-high 17 goals and 18 assists. “To see it’ll be in St. Paul my senior year, that’s extra special. It’s 45 minutes away from my house.’’
The Mavericks’ other co-leading scorer, Zeb Knutson (13 goals, 22 assists) doesn’t have Suess’ Minnesota roots. Instead, Knutson is from Sioux Falls, and he’s one of only a few South Dakota natives to ever play Division I hockey. The sport isn’t offered through South Dakota’s high school activities association but instead an amateur association, and hockey is growing in the state. But Knutson felt his best path to Division I would be to leave to face better competition.
“If you were serious at hockey and wanted to go to the next level, you pretty much had to leave home and try to pursue it somewhere else,’’ said Knutson, who left for a Midget Triple-A team in Topeka, Kan., and played with Suess for two seasons with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede before joining the Mavericks.
Hastings has embraced a recruiting approach that mirrors a changing landscape.
“When you see a Zucker [Wild forward Jason, who is from Las Vegas], when you see some of these players who are from nontraditional areas that are elite, you kind of go by that. What can the kid do? What’s the kid made of?’’ Hastings said. “Every year, you’re seeing more dots on different places in the United States where guys are coming from.’’
MSU Mankato began its winning streak with back-to-back victories over St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth in late January, teams it had lost to early in the season. Confidence took off, and the team is 14-2 since December.
The Mavericks are in line for an NCAA tournament berth, and with it they’ll get a chance for redemption. In 2014-15, they entered the national tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, only to fall to Rochester Institute of Technology 2-1 in the first round on a controversial goal.
“You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes,’’ said Hastings, a Gophers assistant under Don Lucia during the 2008-09 season. “… I wish you could hand out that card to all your freshmen when they walk in, ‘Here’s the experience card. Here ya go. Just take this. You’re going to be better for it.’ You’ve got to go through it.’’
One possible destination for the Mavericks in the NCAA tournament is Sioux Falls, site of the West Regional. Count Knutson excited. “That would be awesome. I would love to go back and play in front of friends and family.’’
The ultimate prize, of course, is the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that definitely it’s a goal,’’ Hastings said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before we even really envision that.
“Put it this way, they know where the Frozen Four is at.’’