Greetings from Mankato, where the Puck Drop Tour of Minnesota makes its final outstate stop to check in on the Minnesota State Mavericks. It’s been a fun four days of interviewing coaches and players, taking in the local flavor of Duluth, Bemidji, St. Cloud and now Mankato. The notebook and tape recorder are full, and I’ll have a Puck Drop newsletter focused on each of the Bulldogs, Beavers, Huskies, Mavericks and Gophers during college preview week, Oct. 7-11.
Upon arrival in the Key City on Wednesday night, my first thought was, “I wonder if the Albatross is hopping tonight.’’ Of course, that was a flashback to the late 1980s, when the ’Tross was an absolute must-stop for a college-age kid on a road trip to visit friends at Mankato State. The Albatross, unfortunately, no longer exists.
What is hopping in Mankato is coach Mike Hastings’ hockey team, which enters the season as the heavy favorite to win its third consecutive WCHA regular-season championship. The Mavericks are loaded, returning 20 skaters from a team that went 32-8-2 and earned a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed last season.
“The attitude has been pretty much on-point, so I’m excited about that,’’ said Hastings, whose team opens the season at home against Arizona State on Oct. 11-12 after an Oct. 5 exhibition against Mount Royal. “… A lot of that has been driven by the upperclassmen. They’ve done a great job bringing the young guys along.’’
Leading that group of upperclassmen are seniors Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie, a pair of Germans who combined for 33 goals and 49 assists. Add in linemate Charlie Gerard (12-18-30), and the Mavericks have a potent top trio.
“We came here as a package deal, and it just fits perfectly that we leave as a package deal,’’ Tuomie said of himself and Michaelis, both of whom turned down chances to turn pro this offseason.
Minnesota State was a stingy squad last season, its 1.8 goals allowed per game ranking fourth nationally. Keying that was freshman goalie Dryden McKay, the College Hockey News national rookie of the year who went 24-7-2 with a 1.76 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
“He’s confident but not arrogant,’’ Hastings said. “You want that in a goaltender.’’
The bugaboo for the Mavericks, of course, has been the national tournament, in which the program has an 0-6 record. Last season, Minnesota State took a 3-0 first-period lead over Providence in the NCAA’s first round at Providence, only to see the Friars storm back for a 6-3 win. A year earlier, MSU led eventual national champion Minnesota Duluth by two goals before falling 3-2 in overtime in the first round.
“Second loss in a row in an NCAA game? I’m sure guys are fired up,’’ Tuomie. “It’s been eating at me ever since we left that state.’’
Hastings sees the road back to the NCAA tourney as a series of steps over a long season.
“We’re back at trying to build our book of business,’’ he said. “At the end of the year, do we have an opportunity to get back to the tournament? The only way you get there is by earning it. We’ve got to go back to earning it.’’
The Minnesota State women's team was on the road Thursday for its opener at Rensselaer this weekend, so an update on the Mavericks women will run in an upcoming newsletter.
Next stop: Minnesota