Fresh off its upset of top-ranked Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha will hope to keep the ball rolling this weekend when it visits WCHA rival Minnesota State. The purple Mavericks (7-16-1, 3-12-1 in the conference) sits at the foot of the WCHA in 12th place, but MSU is coming off of a key 3-0 home win over Wisconsin on Jan. 14.
To help us preview what may not be as straighforward a series for UNO (11-9-4, 8-5-3) as many red Mav fans might think, RFO has been speaking with Shane Frederick, MSU hockey beat writer for the Mankato Free Press.
Here, Frederick gives his thoughts on such topics as MSU’s struggles this season, conference realignment in western college hockey, and how he sees this weekend’s series at Mankato’s Verizon Wireless Center turning out.
Tied with Alaska-Anchorage for the bottom spot in the WCHA standings, MSU has struggled in places so far this year. What might you attribute that to?
Frederick: There are a couple of reasons. First of all, the purple Mavs have been bitten by the injury bug worse than any other season that I can remember. Chase Grant is out for the season, probably Danny Heath, too. Tyler Elbrecht, Max Gaede and Brett Stern missed significant time; JP Burkemper is now out for awhile. Secondly, I think they’ve struggled a bit on the back end, especially when Elbrecht was out. They had to replace three D who played a ton of minutes last year (Kurt Davis, Ben Youds, Channing Boe) and haven’t had the same consistency there as they did in recent years.
MSU goaltender Phil Cook had been hot and cold earlier this season, but, from all reports, he was the star of the show in the Mavericks’ 3-0 win over Wisconsin last Saturday. Is he going to be the key to MSU’s chances against UNO, or does MSU have other players that will likely have bigger roles in the series?
Frederick: Cook was really, really good on Saturday night. He made some amazing saves. Austin Lee has held the No. 1 goaltending job for the majority of the season, though, so I’ll be curious to see who gets the nod on Friday (I’m guessing Cook but don’t know if that’s been finalized yet). MSU will need others, though. Some seniors really stepped up their games last week and that will have to continue. But their top scorers, including freshmen Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner and sophomore Zach Lehrke, were held without a point. MSU can’t afford to have them go cold right now.
MSU has a reasonably favorable schedule until it meets Minnesota Duluth on Feb. 17. Do you feel as though the team’s performance over these next eight games, then, are crucial to the Mavericks if they want to climb up the WCHA ladder ahead of the league playoffs?
Frederick: Without a doubt. I know some of this is lip service but several opposing coaches have noted that MSU is better than its record. I would agree with that, for the most part. Having home games with UNO, Tech and Duluth and going on the road to Bemidji and Anchorage, I would say that is a favorable schedule. I’d say they’re in a situation where home ice is probably lost but improving, getting some momentum and getting out of the cellar for a better playoff position are attainable goals.
We’ve asked all of our interviewees this question, so we’ll ask you, too: What do you make of the recent conference realignment in college hockey? What’s the general sense with regards to that in Mankato?
Frederick: Anyone who’s read my columns or my blog knows I’ve been pretty critical of the whole thing, especially the formation of the NCHC. My biggest question, really, has been: What was gained by its formation and kicking Minnesota State and others to the curb? That simply hasn’t been answered.
Even with the Big Ten teams leaving, I think the WCHA brand was strong enough in college hockey to try to make significant improves to it without breaking it apart. As for Mankato, I’d say there is a lot of bitterness, especially from fans. Most of that is directed at the schools that are leaving, although some feel like MSU could have done more to get into the new league (I disagree with that sentiment). It just goes to show that college hockey is no longer an insulated community that looks out for its own (that was probably a myth, anyway, but it sure had that reputation).
MSU and UNO play for a traveling trophy whose name seems to change depending on who you ask; I’ve heard it most commonly called the Spirit of the Mavericks Trophy, while many others call it the Maverick Cup. Whatever its name, are the trophy and the rivalry something people in the MSU camp spend much time focusing on?
Frederick: I think, officially, it’s called the Spirit of the Maverick Trophy. I’m not sure there has been a lot of focus on the trophy. It probably meant more when the teams were in different conferences because when it comes to league games, it’s all about taking points for the standings. The trophy is only gravy now, but perhaps they can keep the rivalry and the trophy series going when the WCHA breaks up (I am curious about who will get nonconference games come ’13-14).
Lastly, it’s prediction time. How do you see this weekend’s series turning out?
Frederick: Omaha took it to MSU pretty good last year in Nebraska and is coming off a big win against No. 1 Duluth, but despite the purple Mavs’ overall record, they are 4-4-0 in their last eight games. So, call me boring or at least not bold, but I’m going to predict a series split.