Hockey is a primal game, played by clans carrying clubs and wearing blades. Championship teams live to conquer, preferably on foreign ice, celebrating with spoils provided by their vanquished hosts. That is exactly what the pride of the WCHA—Minnesota State—did this past weekend, when it crashed Michigan Tech’s annual Winter Carnival, exiting with the hallowed MacInnes Cup after claiming five of six points in the standings. Like the ancient Roman juggernaut, they came, they saw, they conquered.
Another mark of a championship squad is how it performs under adverse conditions. The Mavericks of Mankato were in dire straits in two consecutive games, trailing 1-0 Friday night with less than a minute to play and down 2-0 deep into the second game. But like great teams, they found a way.
Friday night they were facing Tech goalie Matt Jurusik, the man who boasted the longest shutout streak in the nation at 1:29:54. He stretched that another 59 minutes and five seconds, but buoyed by an extra attacker, Mavs sophomore Jake Jaremko ripped a bullet into the high twine to force overtime. Both nights Minnesota endured an extra session in a hostile building, both nights they silenced raucous crowds. The final tallies were an official 1-1 tie Friday, in which the Mavs collected the extra point in the shootout, and a 3-2 overtime win Saturday.
“You tip your hat to both goaltenders,” said Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings, because they were fantastic.” But Dryden McKay was better, the freshman outplaying the veteran. He, not Jurusik, is the WCHA’s reigning goalie of the week for two consecutive stints. No position is more important to the fate of a hockey team, and the Mavericks will ride him as far as he can take them.
As John MacInnes Arena emptied out Saturday, a band of purple marauders were reveling at center ice, clutching a trophy. Bruised warriors hugged each other, collapsing in a dogpile for a series of photographs to cement this victory into the archives. Only once in the 69-year history of this event had Minnesota State been honored with an invite, losing the series by two goals in 2005. Here, in the 70th year of the tournament, the Mavericks were champions, willing themselves into the winner’s circle.
“I thought Tech had the better of the game,” said Hastings from Saturday’s giddy post-game. “We just found a way to make a play at the end.” And that’s what they did all weekend. Half a dozen players were clutch in the Mavs mini title run: Jaremko beating the previously impenetrable Jurusik with time running out Friday; the German-born captain Marc Michaelis carrying his club’s offensive load Saturday with two goals and an overtime helper; and young McKay besting the hottest goaltender in the nation. Another vital element to postseason success is getting offense from the defense. On both nights, the Mavs’ winning goal was scored by a defenseman: Chris Van Os-Shaw in Friday’s shootout, and the mercurial Connor Mackey jumping into the rush to end Saturday’s overtime.
Not only do they have the pieces for a postseason run, the Mavs have a February title, a late-season trophy hoist that spreads a winning vibe to everyone wearing purple and gold. After their eight-hour bus ride home through the wintry night, the winningest team in college hockey was rewarded with an off-week. A week to get healthy, get rested and refocused for their long-overdue run at the NCAAs. Their trial by fire up in Houghton was the perfect appetizer.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.