No. 2 Minnesota State Hosts Lake Superior State In Mankato Fortress

If you look at their respective Pairwise rankings (No. 3 MSU vs. No. 22 LSSU), this WCHA semifinal is truly a David versus Goliath proposition. The winningest team in the nation (29 Ws) has two offensive lines filling the net, they’ve converted four pp goals in their last 11 chances, and their defense is beyond solid. Furthermore, they appear to have found the goaltender to solve their NCAA frustration in Dryden MacKay. The Mavs are an astounding 18-1 at home, and that, remarkably, is the starting point for the hypothesis that Lake Superior has a puncher’s chances in this series. Because it was Lake Superior who is the only team in the nation to win in Mankato, and they did it by way of shutout, a 1-0 goaltending duel won by the LSSU senior Nick Kossoff back in late January. 

Kossoff has been good, occasionally great, for the men from the Soo this year, his other high point coming over New Year’s when he was named the top goalie at the Great Lakes Invitational. He is one of four impactful seniors (five if you count Providence transfer Steven Ruggiero) who have propelled Lake State to 23 wins and woken the echoes of the former NCAA dynasty in gold and blue. 

The next LSSU senior worth mentioning is Diego Cuglietta, the undersized center (5-foot-10) with oversized production (24 goals, 40 points). He was the MVP of the Lakers first-ever GLI trophy hoist, and the man who has answered the Lakers’ clarion call for offense all season long. 

One final note as we make a case against all odds for LSSU to make it a competitive semifinal series, is the emotional ride Lake State has been on since January. Every member of Laker Nation believed that junior Max Humitz deserved to be on the GLI All-Tourney team down in Detroit. A day after celebrating with the trophy, Max’s father Mike passed away. The team has rallied around their teammate/brother, and blazed the Lakers’ first trail to a home-ice WCHA playoff series. Keep in mind that the Lakers are road warriors, boasting a sterling 14-4 record away from Taffy Abel Arena. But when they march off the bus in Mankato, listen for the screech of a record skipping as the Rocky music fades out.

The musical theme of this series will be fast-paced German marching music. The big sluggers on Lake Superior’s blue line will be chasing the Maverick’s Deutsch Double—Parker Tuomie and Marc Michaelis—all weekend long. These German national team regulars are the Mavericks’ two leading scorers, combining for well over two points per game. They can beat you on the power play with rapid puck movement, but they are most dangerous on the rush. Michaelis, the only European to wear a “C” in college hockey, used to be Tuomie’s set-up man, but his days of being a pass-first centerman are over—he leads the team with 19 goals amongst his 40 points.

The secondary scoring is plentiful, as the Mavs have come to rely on Minnesota schoolboy chums Jake Jaremko and Reggie Lutz. These sophomores have played together since childhood, winning a USHL title together in Chicago along the way. Lutz had a pair of goals in Saturday’s quarterfinal clincher, each set up by his pal Jaremko. And as hockey chess master Mike Hastings looks down his bench for another offensive spark, he’s got more German flavor in freshman Julian Napravnik, who has put up 20 points with barely a breath on the power play. Out of the six total Division I players from Germany, three are piling up points in Mankato. 

Minnesota State’s defense corps begins with Connor Mackey, the undrafted sophomore who keeps NHL Scouts lining the back of the Verizon Center. The self-described “late-bloomer” plays like a seasoned pro: terrific first pass, quarterbacks a potent power play, defends with tight gaps and revels in one-on-one challenges within the zone. Fellow defender Ian Scheid may not have Mackey’s NHL upside, but he has thrilled fans with his skills rushing and finishing, scoring a highlight reel goal in February that bruised the internet. The entire Mavs D corps makes it look easy to move the puck up to their skilled forwards, which keeps the tempo uncomfortably fast for every WCHA opponent.

Tilting the odds even further in the Mavericks’ favor is goalie Dryden Mackay. He wrested the reins of the top job in January with his consistent play. Hastings will ride this 5-foot-11 freshman as far as he can take him. MacKay’s numbers support all the praise he has received: a stingy 1.72 Goals Against Average, and a fraction below the magical .930 save percentage mark. Long-time hockey fans in Mankato are convinced that this is the Maverick team to finally get over their NCAA hump. They have the coach, the firepower and, at long last, goaltending worthy of a Frozen Four run.

The Mavs’ long view of the postseason, looking beyond winning the WCHA’s Jeff Sauer Cup, might be cause for optimism among LSSU rooters this weekend. The Lakers have an exquisite coaching staff of former Michigan Staters, they’ve earned confidence from being the only team to beat the Mavs in Mankato and they’re brimming with intangible Mojo—from the Humitz tragedy to committed seniors. Mankato has stumbled in the WCHA semifinals the last two years running, and the men from the Soo want to extend it to three.

Prediction: Mavs in a sweep. LSSU has already over-achieved this year: 23 wins; new hardware for the trophy case; a home series sweep in the postseason. Now they face the brass of the NCAA, Mavericks galloping at a breakneck pace. The carriage turns into a pumpkin for the Lakers, the party’s over.

Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.

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