Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Minnesota State

As part of last year's early season gauntlet, the Engineers took on Minnesota State for the first time in school history, and it was against the Mavericks that RPI picked up what would be their only victory in their first 11 outings. This year, the Engineers return the favor by heading out to Minnesota for the first of what will be two trips to the Land of 10,000 Lakes this season, appearing in Mankato for the first time to take on a program in transition.

Minnesota State
Nickname: Mavericks
Location: Mankato, MN
Founded: 1867
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 1 (1980, Division II)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2003
Last Frozen Four: 1991 (Division III)
Coach: Mike Hastings (1st season)
2011-12 Record: 12-24-2 (8-18-2 WCHA, 11th place)
Series: Tied, 1-1-0
First Game: October 7, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 8, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Last MSU-M win: October 7, 2011 (Troy, NY)

2012-13 games: October 19-20, 2012 (Mankato, MN)

Key players: F Eriah Hayes, sr.; D Evan Mosey, sr.; G Phil Cook, sr.; D Tyler Elbrecht, sr.; F Eli Zuck, sr.; F Zach Lehrke, jr.; F Johnny McInnis, jr.; F Matt Leitner, so.; F Jean-Paul Lafontaine, so.; F Max Gaede, so.; D Zach Palmquist, so.; F Bryce Gervais, fr.; D Nick Buchanan, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
When your top two scorers are freshmen, you're probably having a difficult season - just ask the 2007-08 Engineers. Minnesota State's seniors certainly underwhelmed offensively last year, contributing to the team's continuing offensive woes as no player reached 30 points for the season for the third consecutive campaign (not, of course, that RPI has much to say on that, with Brock Higgs' 23 leading the team last season). The offensive problems were likely a contributing factor to Troy Jutting losing his job after 12 seasons in Mankato.

The good news is that the Mavericks did get solid freshman campaigns from those top two scorers, Leitner and Lafontaine. Hayes, Lehrke, and Lafontaine tied for the team lead in goals with 13 each, so at the very least the MSU offense can boast a little bit of flexibility with who can put the puck in the net, even if they needed to do it with more frequency to be successful last year.

Last year, Mankato rode an outstanding goaltending performance from senior Austin Lee, who picked up 36 saves for his only career shutout, to swipe a 1-0 victory in the first game between the two programs. The Engineers fared better in game 2 against Cook, scoring four times on the soon-to-be senior, an offensive mark they would not reach again until the end of January. Cook's numbers on the season overall were pedestrian to say the least at 3.55 and .887. The Mavericks are going to need more out of Cook if they are to make strides from last year.

Replacing Jutting behind the bench is Mike Hastings, who has long been expected to take the reins of a Division I program. After 14 years as the head coach of the USHL's Omaha Lancers (winning three championships and never helming a losing season), Hastings replaced long-time Don Lucia lieutenant Mike Guentzel at Minnesota in 2008, leaving one year later to return to Nebraska and become Dean Blais' top assistant at Nebraska-Omaha, where he has been for the last three seasons.

Hastings has proven himself to be an outstanding head coach and four years under the tutelage of two of the greatest college hockey coaches in recent history certainly help his pedigree. How quickly he can turn things around in Mankato, however, remains to be seen, since it's hard to get a bead on what to expect from new coaches. Rick Bennett took over at Union last year and brought them to the Frozen Four, but the cupboard wasn't exactly bare when he took control of a team he knew well as a former assistant. In Lowell, Norm Bazin brought the River Hawks to the NCAA tournament in a season in which they were expected to be lousy. On the flip side, Bob Prier had a rough first season at Princeton.

At any rate, Hastings comes to Mankato just in time for the final season with the powers of the WCHA, which will pretty much all leave for either the Big Ten or the NCHC in 2013. He could be in an excellent position to help mold a new era for the Mavericks in which they can be more than just contenders in the new WCHA.

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