The short answer to the query posed in the headline is simple.
The Minnesota State-Mankato men's hockey team swept UMass on the road in the opening series of the men's college hockey season last weekend, vaulting the Mavericks from No. 5 in the preseason USCHO poll to No. 1 in the most recent poll.
Rankings are a snapshot in time, arbitrary and temporary, and they do not give out trophies based on the best team on Oct. 8. But this is less about a moment and more about the build-up that has Minnesota State on a now-familiar lofty perch.
Head coach Mike Hastings, who joined Friday's Daily Delivery podcast, is the straight line through which the Mavericks' success can be drawn.
Hastings arrived in 2012, a point at which MSU had been to the NCAA tournament just once since joining Division I in 1996.
Since then, the Mavericks have gone six times in his nine seasons, and it surely would have been seven had COVID not canceled the 2020 tournament with Hastings' team looking like a title contender after spending multiple weeks ranked No. 1 during the season.
Last year they broke through and won two tournament games — the second a 4-0 clampdown of the Gophers — to reach their first Frozen Four. Now they're No. 1 again, subject to change of course pending the outcome of this weekend's huge series in Mankato against No. 2 St. Cloud State.
How did they do it? Hastings mentioned administrative support, facilities upgrades and continuity on the coaching staff. But perhaps most importantly:
"When I got here, I was fortunate to have good hockey players," Hastings said. "It's allowed us to continue to climb that ladder, and hopefully we stay on that ascent this season."
The ascent was quick this season, jumping to the top spot after an impressive weekend at UMass, the defending national champs. A shutout in the opener was followed by a victory after rallying from a 3-0 hole in Game 2, all of it coming in front of thousands of fans.
"I guess we became a little numb to the idea of no fans in the building. ... Sometimes you don't miss something until it's gone," Hastings said. "For us to be able to experience that again and now flip the script and come home where it looks like our place will be sold out for the weekend. When you start talking about environment, being back in the State of Hockey against a team we know well and have a tremendous amount of respect for, I know the guys are excited. Put it this way: the ticket list for the players is full."
The USCHO poll is full, too, of Minnesota teams. Aside from this 1-2 showdown, the Gophers are ranked No. 4, Minnesota-Duluth is No. 5 and Bemidji State is No. 15. Division I newcomer St. Thomas, which is in the CCHA with Minnesota State, could ascend as time goes on. Three of the Frozen Four teams last year were from Minnesota.
"I consider all the (Minnesota) programs and the individuals that are the head coaches right now — we've grown up together," Hastings said. "One of Herb (Brooks') visions was trying to provide more opportunities for young people in our state to play Division I hockey. When this started, you didn't have St. Cloud, you didn't have Bemidji, you didn't have Minnesota State and you didn't have St. Thomas. I have to believe Herb is smiling right now with what is within our borders."