BOSTON - Minnesota State is going for a title. The Mavericks clinched their spot in the final by trouncing the University of Minnesota 5-1 in a game that was nearly entirely played the way MSU wanted. The only blemish? An early 2-on-0 that resulted in the Gophers' only goal, scored by Matthew Knies (TOR).
While they have been the class of the CCHA for a number of years, Minnesota State never broke through on the national stage, previously falling short in the tournament even when they were the favorite in their match-up.
The Mavs were also the only final four team this year that was not laden with drafted NHL prospects; Nathan Smith (ARI) is the only one right now, though we will surely see at least one or two players signed as free agents once the Frozen Four concludes. What they do have, however, is an unceasing cohesiveness that allows them to keep opponents to the outside and limit the scoring chances on star goalie Dryden McKay. And the pressure isn't limited to the defense; the forwards play a big role in preventing the opposition from gaining any momentum, too. So how long did it take for this group to buy into coach Mike Hastings' system?
"I think it's right when you step foot on campus," said left winger Reggie Lutz. "Ever since Coach has been here in Mankato, he's built a great culture of family, team first. Anything that gets thrown our way, you're going to put our team first. We don't have one selfish guy on our team. That's kind of our M.O. Whoever is playing great that night is going to get some more playing time maybe than the other guy, and the other guy that's not played as much is still going to be cheering us on, staying positive. That's just kind of what our culture is: 'We before me.' "
Fun story from Lutz post-game: He scored a wraparound in the game and apparently, that was a big deal back in the day. When he was growing up in Elk River, Minnesota, his dad would take him to McDonald's for a Happy Meal every time the youngster scored a wraparound. I smell an endorsement in the future...
McKay has another fun day ahead of him, as the netminder is up for both the Hobey Baker Award (top NCAA player) and the Mike Richter Award (top NCAA goalie).
With the Gophers' season finished, it's time to turn our attention to NHL futures. Center Ben Meyers is the No. 1 college free agent in the land and led Minnesota in scoring with 41 points in 34 games as a junior. Here's what an NHL scout told me about him:
"He's been physically NHL-ready since he got to the Gophers. He could have jumped as a freshman because he's really fast and really quick for a kid who is 200 pounds. Super-diligent, he's got a motor so he gets on guys quick. Good hands, he can make plays, but most of what he does revolves around his energy and feet. Is he a second-line player versus a fourth-line player? That will work itself out at the NHL level, not the AHL level. Best guy in the market because he's a shoo-in."
A lot of folks in Toronto are excited about power forward Matthew Knies and the Gophers freshman did have an incredible season, finishing second in team scoring to Meyers. But is there really a rush to get him into the pros? Unless the Leafs think they need his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame in the playoffs right away, I wouldn't mind seeing Knies spend one more season in college.
Shout-out to Minnesota State's fans; they were raucous all game and it's nice to see them rewarded. Any team that uses "Ole, Ole, Ole" as its goal song when its mascot is a bull is good in my books...