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When Minnesota State Mankato brought both its men’s and women’s hockey teams to AMSOIL Arena last weekend, the UMD men were in the spotlight, as usual, with big crowds, a regional television audience, and the assumption that a victory or two would help the Bulldogs gain home-ice in the WCHA. The UMD women, as usual, played second fiddle -- fighting for fans, fighting against endless injuries just to fill out a full lineup, fighting for home-ice.for its series, and ultimately fighting for respect for both programs.
When the weekend was over, Duluth hockey fans could be thankful the UMD women got things together Sunday afternoon to beat the Mavericks 4-2 in the second game of their series. Good thing, too, or they might have had to rename the building “AMSOIL/Maverick Arena,” because through the first three games of the mixed four, the MSU Mavericks positively owned UMD’s home facility.
The Bulldog women fought up to coach Shannon Miller’s high standards in only one of the two games, but that was one game more than the struggle generated by the men, who went down 4-2 Friday night, then got stuffed 5-1 in Saturday’s rematch. In the process, the UMD men’s fans, who bailed early to head for Canal Park’s night spots, were figuratively kissing playoff home-ice goodbye. It’s not certain yet, of course, because UMD still has six league games remaining.
But the men have lost five WCHA games in a row, to fall from the cusp of home ice stature to sole possession of ninth place at 8-11-3, one point behind Colorado College (8-10-4), which tied Denver 1-1 and then beat the Pioneers 6-5 in overtime to take three out of four points and overtake the Bulldogs. That also drops Denver (10-7-5) down into a three-way tie for fifth, sixth and seventh with MSU-Mankato (12-9-1), and Wisconsin (9-6-7), all of whom are six points ahead of UMD. By the time UMD finishes road trips to Bemidji State and Wisconsin, and comes home for a nonconference series with Alabama-Huntsville, their league fate of hitting the road for a playoff series might be well-determined before they finish the WCHA season against Nebraska-Omaha.
The women faced an entirely different situation but a very similar challenge. The stream of injuries has been the worst in coach Miller’s career, she says, and five regulars missed all of last week of practice. A couple of them returned and played, albeit at less than full speed.
An inexperienced observer might have thought Miller might be pleased despite losing 2-1 in Saturday afternoon’s first game, since UMD outshot Mankato 40-25. Jenna McParland got the lone goal, breaking in alone at freshman goaltender Erin Krichever, and making a deft move before hurtling off to the right and tucking a shot back in at the right edge.
Miller, instead, was fuming. “It’s the same old story,” Miller said. “We got outworked so bad in the second period, it was embarrassing. We played like individuals, nobody would share the puck or make a play. Why? Because they think they’re better than their opponent. It’s a hard lesson, and I don’t know how many times we have to learn it, but we had a lack of focus because we had a lack of respect for our opponent -- and for the tradition of our program.”
That’s been a recurrence of Miller’s biggest peeve. Against Minnesota or Wisconsin, UMD’s players rise up and deliver stirring performances, but, possibly because they’ve had so much success against the rest of the league, that they can just show up and win, the way past Bulldogs teams have been able to do.
The Cinderella story for MSU-Mankato was that Krichever, who had come in as a fill-in relief goalie six times in the season, was getting her first collegiate start against UMD. The 5-foot-5 sophomore from Chicago, who played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Faribault, was a giant against UMD’s frequent, but disjointed, attacks. She made 39 saves on UMDF’s 40 shots, and withstood a furious closing rally.
“I was really nervous,” Krichever said. “I was mad when McParland got that goal on me. And I knew it was McParland again on that breakaway.”
On that one, McParland raced in shorthanded, but Krichever swiped her best shot with a quick glove. Mankato had taken a 2-0 lead in the dismal second period, when Kelsie Scott cut across the goal-mouth, lost the puck, and had it carom past goalie Kayla Black off a defenseman’s stick, and then Lauren Smith jammed in a power-play goal in th last two minutes of the session.
McParland acknowledged the Bulldogs didn’t make many team-coordinated plays, but said, “With Jamie [Kenyon] and Zoe [Hickel] being out, they really make our first and second lines go.”
Miller wasn’t buying it. She has never used injuries as an excuse, and particularly not an excuse for a lack of team play, or playmaking.
The message got through Sunday afternoon. As a blizzard struck Duluth about the time the first period ended, Pernilla Winberg’s shorthanded goal had staked UMD to a 1-0 lead, and even after Kathleen Rogan banged in the tying goal on a two-skater advantage, the Bulldogs came out to earn two goals in the second period. Brienna Gillanders converted a pass from Russian rookie Aleksandra Vafina, and Jessica Wong curled out from the right boards after a corner faceoff, and spotted an opening to glance a 20-foot missile past Krichever off the left pipe.
Gillanders, a third-line junior from Saskatchewan, came through with a textbook heavy-effort goal midway through the third period, sprawling to the ice before swatting the puck past Krichever. Lauren Smith came right back to score for the Mavericks, nine seconds later, to lift her season total to 21 goals -- already the MSU-Mankato single season record, and counting.
“Yesterday we were not committed, but today we were dialed in,” said Miller. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it; these are life lessons. I thought Mankato played better today than yesterday, and we were way better.”
Unlike the men, the women’s WCHA has eight teams, so only the top four get home icerushes to an ending in only two more weekends. This week UMD is at Wisconsin, a team the Bulldogs -- filled with respect -- swept early at AMSOIL, but which now stands 13-9-2 with two shootout victories, for 43 points, for third place, compared to UMD’s 13-10-1 for 40 points in fourth. Minnesota is a runaway first (24-0-0, 72 points), with North Dakota second (15-9-0 for 45 points). After UMD plays at Wisconsin this weekend, the Bulldogs come home to finish the regular season against North Dakota.
“We’re still fourth, and I believe we could definitely finish fourth with all our bodies,” Miller said. “As it is, it looks like we may not get Kenyon back, and we’ll just have to give it our best effort.”
IS TOO GOOD
If Erin Krichever could bedevil UMD;s women, the Mavericks men were led by the WCHA’s quietest superstar. Not many outside of Mankato have paid proper respect to Eriah Hayes, and even those IN Mankato may have never had an idea that a kid from LaCresent could become the Mavericks leader.
Hayes was asked who was the biggest name in hockey to ever come from LaCrescent, Minnesota. He paused, and gave it some thought, and then he said, “I would have to say Tom Hagan. He was my Bantam coach.”
No, Eriah, you’re wrong. YOU are the best hockey player ever to come out of LaCrescent. While he was a standout in the tiny program and high school, LaCrescent isn’t at a truly competitive level. Hayes went off and played a year of junior in the North American League, then two years in the USHL, before coming to MSU-Mankato.
He scored some, but nothing earth-shaking, as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, and he became captain as a senior. It’s possibly nobody at AMSOIL Arena had ever heard of him, but they’ll remember the scene of his tall, lanky body working his way through the Bulldog defense for a goal and two assists in Friday’s 4-2 victory, and when he scored his first hat trick and added an assist for a four-point night in the 5-1 second game, it meant Hayes had 4-3--7 out of Mankato’s nine goals for the weekend. At 16-12--28, he is second in team scoring, and at 48-40--88, he is the Mavs top career scorer among current players.
All three of Hayes’s goals Saturday came on power plays, which boosted his total to 10 power-play goals for the season, most in the WCHA, and in the whole NCAA.
“Eriah Hayes is a difference maker,” said Mike Hastings, MSU-Mankato’s first-year head coach. “When you can go on the road and win two in this league, it means everybody contributed, and your best players are your best players. Eriah is a special human being. He’s a leader on the ice and off. He lives his life the right way. He’s got Teddy Blueger, a freshman, on his line, and he’s put a lot of work into mentoring Teddy Blueger.”
It was an impressive weekend for MSU-Mankato, sweeping UMD, and the Mavericks have the look the Bulldogs had three years ago, when they were making plays and helping each other score while on an upward trajectory to elite status and ultimately an NCAA championship.
We can’t overlook Division III college hockey, right here in the Twin Ports. Not sure why, but Wisconsin-Superior looked like a hot team on a rise a month ago, while St. Scholastica was sputtering along like a Junior A team more interested than taking a few runs than making plays and winning. In the last month, though, the Saints have taken off just as the Yellowjackets have sputtered, and they passed each other in the middle of the NCHA. While Eau Claire, St. Norbert’s and Stevens Point finished 1-2-3, the Saints wound up fourth, and UWS fifth in the league. So the NCHA playoffs open this weekend, with, of all things, UWS playing at St. Scholastica Friday and Saturday nights. The series, at Mars-Lakeview, will be two games, followed immediately by a mini-game if the teams split the two.
With the NCHA disbanding after this season, and UWS and St. Scholastica going off into different leagues, this will be their last hurrah as league rivals in a playoff series. Nice that we can see it.