Monday, October 27, 2014

Gervais gets award, Mavs nudged up

Minnesota State junior forward Bryce Gervais was named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Offensive Player of the Week on Monday for his three-goal performance in the Mavericks' conference sweep over Alabama Huntsville over the weekend.

Gervais scored the game-winning goal in each game, a 3-1 victory on Friday and a 4-1 win on Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Center.

His two goals on Saturday included a short-handed score. Gervais now has four goals and two assists this season, and the six points rank tied for second on the team with Matt Leitner (six assists). Senior defenseman Zach Palmquist leads the Mavericks in scoring with three goals and five assists for eight points.

Other WCHA players of the week included Michigan Tech goaltender Jamie Phillips (defensive), who stopped 67 of 68 shots in the Huskies' sweep at Ferris State, and Bowling Green foreward Mitch McLain (rookie), who had three points in the Falcons' nonconference tie and win at Clarkson.

Meanwhile, Minnesota State moved up one spot to No. 12 in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online top 20 poll and remained 12th in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine top 15.

Other WCHA teams in the rankings include Ferris State (14/15), Alaska (16) and Michigan Tech (17).

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mavericks 4, Chargers 1

Free Press photo by Pat Christman
Freddy's three thoughts of the game ...

1. Bryce, Bryce, baby: Bryce Gervais was the star of the show on Saturday, scoring two goals as Minnesota State swept Alabama Huntsville. Gervais scored two goals, the game-winner on a power play at 11:01 of the second period and a short-handed breakaway in the third. On both goals it was just him and the goalie after some hard work and sharp passes from teammates (Michael Huntebrinker and Zach Stepan along the wall on the first and a perfect breakout pass from Matt Leitner on the second). But on a weekend when the Mavericks had trouble beating those good Huntsville goalies, someone had to finish.

2. Don't call them the fourth line: The grouping of Jordan Nelson, Chase Grant and Max Gaede continues to impress. They may be the fourth line on the chart but they've provided energy — and more — when needed. A night after their team went two periods without a goal, they scored the first, as Grant tipped in Nelson's pass at 13:52 of the first period. Grant has three goals, and Nelson has three assists on the year. Gaede didn't have a point in the series, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. Coach Mike Hastings even put the 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior in front of the net on the power play. "We need some net presence," Hastings said, "and he's earned it."

3. Getting the job done: The Mavericks couldn't afford a hiccup against Huntsville if they're going to compete for the MacNaughton Cup, and they found way to get through a weekend where they dominated play but were given no cheap goals along the way. Minnesota State is now 2-0-0 in WCHA play and will face a tough test next weekend when they go to Bowling Green. If goalies Carmine Guerrero and Matt Larose keep playing like they did this weekend, Huntsville will score some upsets along the way and probably get more than the five league points it stole last year. The Mavericks do not play at Huntsville this year.

Read my game story here.

Around the WCHA: Michigan Tech, 2, Ferris State 1 ... Northern Michigan 3, Lake Superior State 0 ... Alaska Anchorage 3, Maine 3 (OT) ... Western Michigan 4, Alaska 2 ... Bowling Green 5, Clarkson 4 ... Minnesota 5, Bemidji State 3

MSU vs. Alabama Huntsville — Game 2 live blog

To join the conversation, click on the blog post title above or go here.

Tonight's lines:

MINNESOTA STATE
15-Franklin ... 23-Blueger ... 9-Gervais
12-LaFontaine ... 18-Leitner ... 19-McClure
25-Stepan ... 17-Huntebrinker ... 26-Margonari
21-Grant ... 16-J. Nelson ... 8-Gaede

27-Stern ... 5-Foguth
7-Palmquist ... 3-Thompson
11-Flanagan ... 6-C. Nelson

35-Williams
34-Huggins

Scratches: Buchanan, Knowles, Knutson, A. Nelson, Schmeisser

ALABAMA HUNTSVILLE
12-Soquila ... 13-Carpetner ... 9-Brears
11-Prince ... 24-Saulnier ... 26-Kestner
22-Salhany ... 19-Pierce ... 10-Fletcher
7-McHugh ... 16-Reid ... 23-Marooney

3-White ... 20-Parker
6-Carlson ... 5-Champagn
33-Buri ... 4-Misuraca

30-Larose
35-Guerriero

Referees: Kevin Langseth, Bobby Lukkason. Linesmen: Rick Nelson, Matt Anderson.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Mavericks 3, Chargers 1

Free Press photo by Pat Christman
Freddy's three thoughts of the game ...

1. Finding a way: We've seen games like this before at the Verizon Wireless Center, right? A goalie keeps the underdog hanging around. The Mavericks get frustrated, impatient, sloppy. They lose, they tie, they win but feel lousy about it. On Friday, Carmine Guerriero kept winless Alabama Huntsville in the game, stopping 54 shots. A perfectly timed counter attack, a bad change, and odd-man rush ... all could have led to a score and got MSU reeling. That didn't happen, though. The Mavericks controlled the play for the vast majority of the game, and, finally got the goals they needed. Jean-Paul LaFontaine broke the scoreless tie 51 seconds, and Bryce Gervais' power-play goal ended up as the game-winner.

2. Leit show: Matt Leitner finished the game with two assists and had seven shots on goal. His pass to LaFontaine was another example of his superior rink vision and ability to put the puck where he wants it. Fortunately, LaFontaine was ready for it, and he finished off the play. Mavericks coach Mike Hastings put the two seniors together on the same line for the first time this season, along with freshman Brad McClure (team-high eight shots on goal). Of Leitner, Hastings said, "He played a real complete game. He played 200 feet by 85 feet tonight, both ends — our end, their end, neutral zone. He took some abuse; he put on some miles."

3. Line changes: Besides the Leitner-LaFontaine line change, the Mavericks had a few other switcheroos. Teddy Blueger centered C.J. Franklin and Gervais, and Michael Huntebrinker returned to the lineup after being a scratch the last three games and centered Zach Stepan and Dylan Margonari. Hastings continued to tinker during the game as well, it appeared, which he's been known to do depending on how guys are playing. As it's been discussed since the beginning of the year, the Mavericks have lots of options up front, and there always will be two unhappy forwards watching from the stands. Zeb Knutson was a scratch on Friday, and Brett Knowles appears to be getting closer 100 percent and to returning to the lineup.

Deep thought: What was up with the ice tonight? From my vantage point, it looked slow and wet. The second period began with players falling all over the place. That surface certainly doesn't help a team like MSU take advantage of its speed against a team like Huntsville, which would like nothing more than to slow down the Mavericks. Perhaps it's the unseasonably warm weather, but I figured those problems would have gone away with this now 1-year-old ice system.

Read my Free Press game story here.

Around the WCHA: Michigan Tech 1, Ferris State 0 ... Northern Michigan 4, Lake Superior State 2 ... Bowling Green 2, Clarkson 2 (OT) ... Maine 3, Alaska Anchorage 1 ... Alaska 1, Western Michigan 0 ... Minnesota 5, Bemidji State 2

Minnesota State vs. Alabama Huntsville

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Minnesota State lines
15-Frankin ... 23-Blueger ... 9-Gervais
12-LaFontaine ... 18-Leitner ... 19-McClure
25-Stepan ... 17-Huntebrinker ... 26-Margonari
21-Grant ... 16-J. Nelson ... 8-Gaede

27-Stern ... 5-Foguth
7-Palmquist ... 3-Thompson
11-Flanagan ... 6-C. Nelson

35-Williams
34-Huggins
29-A. Nelson

Scratches: Buchanan, Knowles, Knutson, Schmeisser

Alabama Huntsville lines
12-Soquila ... 13-Carpenter ... 21-Vanderlugt
11-Prince ... 24-Saulnier ... 26-Kestner
22-Salhany ... 19-Pierce ... 10-Fletcher
7-McHugh ... 16-Reid ... 23-Marooney

28-Reinhardt ... 20-Parker
6-Carlson ... 5-Champagne
33-Buri ... 4-Misuraca

30-Larose
35-Guerriero

Referees: Kevin Langseth, Bobby Lukkason. Linesmen: Rick Nelson, Matt Anderson

Backes goes to bat for BENCHS

When they were students at Minnesota State, David Backes and his then-girlfriend and now-wife Kelly spent a lot of their time volunteering at BENCHS, the Blue Earth Nicollet County Humane Society.

"When you're a college student living in a rental apartment, most of those don't let you have animals," Backes, the former MSU hockey star, said in a phone interview on Friday. "Even if they did, there are responsibilities and travel t hat get in the way.

"The animals were our surrogate pets. ... We'd go there and get a dose of dog-walking or socialize with cats."

Backes said he and Kelly learned a lot about rescue animals and adoption in those days, and the couple became passionate about the cause. They're now strong advocates for pet rescue, using Backes' status as a professional athlete — captain of the St. Louis Blues — to raise the platform.

Their work includes Athletes for Animals, an organization they founded about a year ago that brings together pro athletes from all sports who have a "shared passion for rescuing and protecting the welfare of homeless pets." The organization, Backes said, has awarded more than $75,000 in grants already.

Tonight's Minnesota State's game against Alabama Huntsville is Pucks for Paws night, which will raise money for BENCHS and Athletes for Animals. The first 2,000 fans through the doors will receive a Backes poster (200 of them are autographed), and there will be a $10 raffle with the chance to win several Backes-autographed items.

"We wanted to give (BENCHS) some added credibility and exposure in the community," Backes said.

The Backeses live what they preach, too.

"Right now, the Backes home has four dogs — all rescue dogs — two cats and and three foster kittens that need to be bottle fed," Backes said. "I have to give a lot of credit to my wife."

Last February, Backes brought two homeless dogs back to the U.S. from Sochi, Russia, after he played in the Olympics there. Both have good homes, he said. One went to the parents of his Blues and Olympic teammate Kevin Shattenkirk and the other went to another Olympic teammate, the New York Rangers' Derek Stepan, cousin of current MSU player Zach Stepan.

Friday morning skate

**REMINDER: MSU'S FRIDAY GAMES NOW BEGIN AT 7:07 P.M.**

Sorry for the lack of posts this week, but it's the end of what's been a crazy few days, ones that included covering the Mankato Marathon on Sunday and trying to squeeze in a little time off.

Game day, finally.

The Mavericks will open WCHA play at home tonight against Alabama Huntsville, and they hope they can bounce back from a disappointing home-opener in which they lost to Minnesota Duluth before a record crowd.

In today's Free Press, I take a look at the Mavericks goaltending situation, one that's been team strength the last two years but also one that's taken some time early in the year to iron out. Is the same thing happening this year?

A few outtakes from my interview with a more confident Stephon Williams, tonight's likely starter:

On his two wins this season: "Look at those two wins, and they were two really hard, collective team wins. (Against Omaha), we came back and scored four goals. ... It wasn't me doing anything. I only faced 10 shots. ... If you look at some of our goals (against Minnesota Duluth), they were just hard-working goals. ... Those were just two games where we were fighting really well, and that takes a lot of pressure off the goalie."

On the competition between him Cole Huggins in Aaron Nelson: "Like any sport, anyone want to play every time. No one wants to not play. At the same time, it's such a team aspect with us, not only our whole team but us three goalies. ... We're very good at keeping it professional in the sense that when we show up at the rink, we're pushing each other. But as soon as we take off the pads, we're good friends."

"I know coach has said it, and I believe it, too: I think we have three goalies that can go out every night and be difference makers."

On what he learned last season: "I'm fortunate in my life that I've gotten to play a lot. Back home in Fairbanks (Alaska), I was the only goalie on my team. I was fortunate to get my opportunity in juniors and, obviously, my freshman year. To go through that (last year) was a good learning experience for me, and it's something that's going to help me my whole life. I know what the lowest of the lows can be like; I know what the highest of the highs can be like. There's a lot of things you can't control in the game of hockey and the game of life."

For more on this weekend's series, check out the Freep's College Hockey Gameday feature. The Huntsville notes can be found here.

Going around the WCHA ...

Alaska Anchorage at Maine: The Seawolves travel all the way across the continent to take on the Black Bears. Anchorage is 3-0-1 but to stay unbeaten, they'll need to get some more offensive production from their defensemen.

Michigan Tech at Ferris State: This is the WCHA's best series so far with both teams expected to be in the hunt for home ice, if not the McNaughton Cup, at the end of the year.

Alaska at Western Michigan: The Nanooks begin a true four-game road trip with two games against their old CCHA foe. They'll stay in the Lower 48 next week as they prepare for their WCHA opener against Bemidji State.

Northern Michigan at Lake Superior State: The Wildcats opened the season last week with a sweep of Wisconsin in Green Bay. Despite being a bit of a no-name team, they have a good chance of starting the conference season unbeaten with two games against the struggling Lakers.

Bemidji State at Minnesota: The Beavers surprised everyone when they opened the season with a win at North Dakota. Can they shock the college hockey world again by getting a victory over the No. 1-ranked Gophers, a team they haven't beaten since 2009? Each team in this series has a set of three brothers on the roster. Minnesota has the Reillys (Mike, Ryan and Carter), and Bemidji State has freshman triplets Leo, Gerry and Myles Fitzgerald

Read this week's WCHA column from USCHO here. Check out my and Jack Hittinger's weekend picks here.