CCHA RinkRap: Excitement, Spotlight Focused On Minnesota
CCHA RinkRap: Excitement, Spotlight Focused On Minnesota
Minnesota State played a home-and-home test with Minnesota. A stirring in St. Paul sends tremors through the CCHA. Northern Michigan embraces road life.
The Minnesota State Mavericks played a gripping home-and-home test with the vaunted Golden Gophers, a stirring in St. Paul sends tremors through the CCHA and Northern Michigan embraces the road life.
NCAA Preview In Mankato
It was bigger than the CCHA, it was bigger than intersectional play, it was a series so big only an NCAA Tournament could contain it.
CCHA flagship school Minnesota State clashed with national No. 2 University of Minnesota in a commuter series packed with drama.
The new-look Mavericks of Mankato faced an existential threat to both their self-esteem and the all-knowing Pairwise rankings, a legitimate crisis in just its second game of the season.
On Saturday night, MSU was down a game and down a goal, and after David Silye's game misconduct, down a skater for five minutes to a Minnesota club eager to snuff out its NCAA rival.
"Things got a little bit out of hand," said Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings. "We could have pulled out, gone to the excuses and said, 'It's not going to be our night.'"
But thanks to the will of 4,900 leather-lunged fans in Mankato, gutty performances from two newcomers and a game-winning laser from Minnesota's favored son, the Mavericks survived a brutal test that had college hockey fans reveling in playoff-style hockey so early in the season.
It was 120 minutes of hockey, covering both ends of State Route 169, reminding fans from Michigan to Massachusetts that the true State of Hockey is Minnesota, always and forever.
The latest example of Minnesota clutch came in Saturday's comeback by the Mavericks.
Its first goal came from freshman benchwarmer Campbell Cichosz (Albert Lea, Minnesota), and a late game-winner came from senior sniper Ryan Sandelin (Hermantown, Minnesota).
Because of the series split, both the national polls and Pairwise will remain steady, with these two Minnesota clubs hovering in the top 5 nationally. The polls overflow with Minnesota schools, including perennial powers St. Cloud and Duluth.
This home-and-home showdown was a showcase of Minnesota talent, none more impressive than Gopher freshman Jimmy Snuggerud, who sniped four goals in the two games.
If the name is familiar, it is with good reason. His dad was a talented hustler for three American institutions a generation ago - the Gophers, the U.S. Olympic team and the Buffalo Sabres.
The elder Snuggerud was known as an "honest" hockey player, a guy who took no shortcuts to will himself into the NHL, a league that treated Americans as second-class hockey citizens in the 1980s.
Thirty-five years later, his progeny was drafted in the NHLs first round, an elite player with a glorious future. Even Mankato fans have stars in their eyes when it comes to the state's latest prodigy.
"Snuggerud sure has our number," said Mankato superfan Curt Kliewer after the conclusion of the breathtaking series. "The Gophers are a little better, but we got them tonight."
Gophers' season ticket holder Kim Hansen concurs.
"This is our year," said Hansen, who was in Boston last spring when the Gophers season of promise was exterminated by the Mavericks defensive stranglehold. "I'm sure (Bob) Motzko [Gophers head coach] has shown tape from last year's game, and they'll want revenge for Bob. These home-and-home series have always been meaningful, and even with one loss this weekend, it feels like this year we've got this. See you in Tampa."
🆕 @USCHO Division I Men's Ice Hockey Poll 🏒— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) October 10, 2022
3. North Dakota
4. Minnesota Duluth
5. Minnesota State
9. Boston University
10. St. Cloud State
And, there's the rub for the rest of the country. The Frozen Four is a playground for Minnesota schools. Not only have the Gophers and Mavs been in the past two editions, but along with Duluth and St. Cloud, Minnesota teams have played for the NCAA Championship in each of the last five years.
As every college hockey aficionado knows, Saturday night's hero Sandelin possesses DNA from two of the Minnesota super powers: he rings up goals for Minnesota State, while his dad, Scott, coaches Duluth.
That relationship will be on full display this weekend, but on Saturday, his focus was on the Mavs watershed victory over a superb Minnesota Gophers team.
"Could have been easy for us to throw in the towel," Sandelin said in a sweaty post-game interview. "These games are massive for the Pairwise. Something we can build on."
Typical of Sandelin, when asked to describe his clutch goal, he used the plural pronoun "we."
Hastings shuddered visibly at the doomsday scenario his club would have faced if his Mavs had not pulled off Saturday's comeback.
"You go 0-2, and you've got Duluth coming to town?" Hastings exhaled and shook his head. "We've always prided ourselves on defending home ice, to have the guys to find a way to win the game."
To borrow a golf analogy, Hastings knew his team's resilience turned a potential double-bogey into a saved par, and the Pairwise computer will reward their comeback handsomely.
"The team we played [Minnesota] is going to win an awful lot of hockey games," he added. "That's one in the bank, a quality win against a very quality opponent. They can't take that away from you. Gives us an opportunity to get a breath."
Fortunately for Hastings, his club remains in Mankato for the two-game set with Duluth.
None of these games impact the CCHA standings, but on a macro-level, everyone from Amherst to Ann Arbor knows the road to Tampa goes through Minnesota, and these intra-state contests in October foreshadow the single-elimination games that will determine history come April.
More From Minnesota
Ninety minutes north of Mankato, history was being made on St. Paul ice, the hockey epicenter of Minnesota.
St. Thomas freshman Josh Eernisse (Apple Valley, Minnesota) printed down the left wing in overtime, then deftly deposited the skate-off goal for the Tommies, the first Division I overtime victory for the fledgling program.
St. Thomas coach Rico Blasi revealed none of his team's exhilaration in the post-game remarks. He is coaching for long-term results, and knows that though the win was important, it was not grand enough for anyone to rest on false laurels.
"We're not quite there yet, but we understand a little bit more about how to win at this level," Blasi said. "I was really happy with the way we played our third period and how we came back. That's an important lesson."
Blasi is the only CCHA coach with a resume to match Hastings, a body of work that includes multiple Frozen Four appearances and too many coach-of-the-year awards to fit into his office in St. Paul.
He is college hockey's answer to Napoleon, a brilliant leader who has reinvented himself in the State of Hockey.
He is an outsider of sorts, the only non-Minnesotan in the close-knit six-team fraternity of Division I coaches in the State of Hockey. But he has an extraordinary recruiter in Leon Hayward. In their second year, Blasi continues his relentless march toward contention.
All three of the Tommies' goals came from Minnesota natives: freshman Luc Laylin (St. Michael, Minnesota), Northern Michigan transfer Mack Byers, (Long Lake, Minnesota) and the aforementioned Eernisse.
CCHA coaches voted St. Thomas into last place in the league polls, a vote that simply doesn't add up, according to Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan.
"St. Thomas is going to be much better than they're selected," said Shawhan on CCHA media day.
He knows in his heart that his Huskies will be in a dogfight with the Tommies for a foothold in the CCHA standings.
Placing a proven winner like Blasi in the heart of Minnesota is bad news for league rivals.
"They have the ability within their footprint in Minneapolis to draw transfer students to go in and play, and they can recruit within that environment," Shawhan added.
Shawhan is a dedicated student of the game, and he clearly studied the Tommies roster before media day. His premonition proved prescient Saturday, as Minnesotans danced on the St. Thomas ice three times in the dramatic win. Blasi is serving notice that a new power is sprouting in the Twin Cities.
Horse Race On Upper Peninsula
Michigan Tech, Lake Superior and Northern Michigan have captured seven NCAA titles between them, and the race for dominance in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a prerequisite for postseason success.
Northern Michigan has taken the lead in the first turn of this three-horse race, as the Wildcats enjoyed their first road trip of the season, traveling to central New York and skating off with an impressive sweep over Colgate of ECAC Hockey.
Veteran thoroughbreds Andre Ghantous and A.J. Vanderbeck generated crucial offense for the Cats.
Not only did the wins build a modest three-game win streak for NMU, they gave all the CCHA teams a boost in the Pairwise rankings. Getting away from Marquette clearly agreed with the Cats.
"Early in the season and being on the road gives the guys a couple of days to spend without anything going on other than hockey," said NMU head coach Grant Potulny via text. "We had a couple of nice dinners and some organic team bonding on the bus and the airport."
And how about winning a pair of games? That couldn't hurt.
"100%," said Potulny, who now carries the CCHA Pairwise banner into Notre Dame for a pair of games this weekend.
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