Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Maverick vs. Maverick

Former Mavericks captain David Backes and the St. Louis Blues were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week, and Backes had an emotional postgame presser that really showed his character after his season ended.

Backes may be done for the summer, but some former MSU players are still playing.

In the ECHL's Kelly Cup finals, it's Maverick against Maverick as Brett Stern and the Wheeling Nailers are taking on Jean-Paul LaFontaine and the Allen Americans. The series is tied 1-1 after two games (including a wild, 7-6 Wheeling win on Sunday afternoon) with Game 3 set for Wednesday night in Wheeling. Each former Maverick has an assist in the series.

Stern, a defenseman, has had an outstanding season in Wheeling (West Virginia). In 72 regular-season games he had 7 goals and 17 assists with 157 shots on goal, 63 penalty minutes and was +5. He's -10 in 22 playoff games but has four points (1 goal) with 42 shots and 16 PIMs.

LaFontaine, a forward, played 60 games in Allen (Texas), compiling 5 goals and 15 assists with 54 shots and 44 PIMs. His +/- is even. In 18 playoff games, he has seven points (1 goal) with 20 shots, one penalty and an even +/-.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

'Five' thoughts

When writing my Tuesday column earlier this week about the new WCHA playoff format (read it here), it dawned on me that the conference could have kept the well-known Final Five name for its tournament, considering teams need to win five league playoff games to clinch the Broadmoor Trophy.

As I wrote, the name would have been more accurate than its use over the last three years when four teams advanced to the championship weekend and played three games there.

According to WCHA associate commissioner for public relations Matt Hodson, the league did consider keeping the Final Five name for the very same reason I suggested. However, office staff and the conference's 10 schools "felt it was time to rebrand the tournament going into a new era."

"The Final Five is synonymous with a different format and a different time," Hodson said on Wednesday afternoon. "This was the perfect time to make the change."

Going with WCHA Playoffs for the first two rounds of best-of-three play and WCHA Championship for the single title game (all at home sites) may sound generic, but, as Hodson pointed out, they do accentuate the league name — and probably more than the Final Five did.

The new playoff logos include the Broadmoor Trophy in their design. It's a unique trophy (making its debut in 2010, replacing the original trophy) the shape of The Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo. The hotel, which included the Broadmoor World Arena, was an early supporter of college hockey and hosted the NCAA tournament 11 times between 1948 and 1969.

It's a nice-looking logo, and, perhaps, the WCHA should so something similar with the MacNaughton Cup in a redesign of the league's everyday logo.

Some other notes from my conversation with Hodson:

• The league is exploring TV coverage options for the WCHA playoffs and "there's interest in at least doing the championship game," Hodson said. There may be challenges with the other rounds taking place at multiple sites, but those games would at least be available on the league's WCHA.tv streaming package and through any local TV options (such as Minnesota State's arrangement with Charter.)

• Hodson said viewership on WCHA.tv last season was up 7 percent from the previous year.

• The search for a new WCHA women's commissioner is ongoing with hopes of having someone in place at the beginning of August.

• The WCHA women's playoff format is not changing. The league is locked in to doing its Final Face-Off at the University of Minnesota's Ridder Arena for the next two years.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mavs pick up Robertson Cup MVP

Minnesota State's most recent verbal commit is Reggie Lutz of the NAHL's Fairbanks Ice Dogs. It's been quite a week for Lutz, an Elk River native, as he recently led the Ice Dogs to the Robertson Cup championship. He was named MVP of the NAHL finals by scoring five of his team's seven goals in the three games (semifinals and finals).

According to a story in the Fairbanks News-Miner, Lutz visited MSU on Monday.

“When I went on my tour today, I just fell in love with the campus and the student life there,” Lutz said in the article. “I felt it was great fit for me with what I want to study, and the hockey there is great. For me, I think it was kind of an easy decision. Plus, it’s in Minnesota. It’s got everything that I want.”

Lutz, who is expected to join the Mavericks in 2017 after another season with the Ice Dogs, is a 5-foot-10, 175-pound forward who had 30 goals and 21 assists in 57 regular-season games and another nine goals and three assists in 12 playoff games.

As a high school senior, Lutz had 60 points in 25 games, including 35 goals.

“After going to Mankato it was an easy decision,” Lutz told the News-Miner. “The other schools, I was definitely interested in but I didn’t think they could match what Mankato could give me, such as schooling and playing wise and the great facilities that they have in Mankato.”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mavericks' 2016-17 schedule is out

The Minnesota State men's hockey team will open the season with a bang in 2016-17. The Mavericks will host Michigan Tech on Oct. 7-8 at the Verizon Wireless Center in a clash of last season's MacNaughton Cup co-champions. They will follow that up with a nonconference series against in-state rival St. Cloud State on Oct. 14-15.

UPDATE: Read more about the schedule and coach Mike Hastings' comments on it and the WCHA's new playoff format here.

You can see MSU's full schedule here, but here are the highlights:

• The Mavericks will play 17 home games (plus one exhibition game), including the first half of a home-and-home nonconference series with Minnesota on Nov. 18-19. Eleven home games will take place in October, November and December.

• They will be playing just one other nonconference series, going to Princeton Dec. 16-17.

• Other home series include: Ferris State (Oct. 28-29), Bemidji State (Nov. 11-12), Alaska (Dec. 2-3), Bowling Green (Jan. 13-14), Lake Superior State (Jan. 27-28) and Northern Michigan (Feb. 17-18).

• Other road series include: Alaska (Oct. 21-22), Lake Superior State (Nov. 4-5), Ferris State (Dec. 9-10), Alabama Huntsville (Jan. 6-7), Michigan Tech (Jan. 20-21), Alaska Anchorage (Feb. 3-4) and Bemidji State (Feb. 24-25).

• Minnesota State's exhibition game will be Oct. 1 against the University of Regina.

• The series at Bemidji will close out the regular season, and the new WCHA playoff format begins a week later (March 3-4) with quarterfinal series. Semifinal series will take place March 10-12, and the championship game will take place March 18, a Saturday.

• It's interesting that MSU is playing just 34 games, despite going to Alaska twice. The NCAA allows more games for teams that make the trip to Alaska, and the Mavericks have traditionally played a 36-game schedule.

• The Mavericks are the team out of the North Star College Cup this year after playing in the first three.

The WCHA released its composite schedule for the season, and that can be found here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

WCHA playoffs move to home sites

The Final Five is no more.

On Tuesday, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association announced a new postseason structure that will move all conference tournament games, including the Broadmoor Trophy championship game, to home sites.

UPDATE: Read my full story on the Free Press website here.

The format, which will begin already at the end of the 2016-17 season, will take place over three weekends, with two rounds of best-of-three series hosted by the higher-seeded teams, followed by a single championship game between the two remaining teams at the higher seed’s home rink. The top eight of the league's 10 teams will advance to the playoffs.

“It’s all about the best experience for the college athlete – that’s our first priority – and for the fans. It’s a win-win for everyone," said Bowling Green President Mary Ellen Mazey, who is chair of the WCHA Board of Directors.

Ferris State coach Bob Daniels described the format as "forward-thinking."

Before college realignment, the WCHA Final Five packed St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center year after year. But in the three years since, it has drew small crowds to Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. (2014, 2016) and the X (2015). It went from a revenue-producing venture for the league to a losing one. The event was to be played in St. Paul one more time, but the league opted to move on with the new format. 

Robertson said Xcel Energy Center and Minnesota Wild officials were cooperative in ending the agreement but wouldn't go into specifics.

"I can’t disclose financial information," he said. "But we made a healthy break with them, and they were supportive of our decision."

Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman said the idea came up during the league's annual meetings last month in Florida and quickly gained momentum. Robertson said the vote of all 10 schools was unanimous.

Some "stickhandling of the schedule," Buisman said, had to be done to make the format work, considering the playoffs will take up an extra weekend. Buisman said teams will still play their rivals (Bemidji State, in the case of MSU) on the final weekend of the regular season. The league's composite schedule is slated to be released on Thursday.

'Major' announcement coming from WCHA

At 1 p.m. today, the WCHA will be making what it's billing as a "major business announcement," and speculation is rampant as to what's coming.

I'll be on the conference call and will report the news, although the early whispers are that this has to do with a change in the league's playoff format and a return to on-campus sites instead of having a Final Five championship weekend. Stay tuned.

While the playoffs are a big concern for the WCHA to figure out, they may not be the biggest issue facing the league this offseason, as I wrote about in my Free Press column today. When you have a member team's best player transferring and blasting the league's style of play on his way out the door, it magnifies a problem that seemed to turn into a trend during the 2015-16 season that followed an excellent '14-15 campaign.

Meanwhile, another concern is the financial situation at the Alaska schools and what that means to their future both academically and athletically.

Friday, May 6, 2016

MSU hockey awards

On Thursday night, Minnesota State announced its team award winners for the 2015-16 season. Senior forward Teddy Blueger cleaned up, winning three of the team's awards — Most Valuable Player, Hardest Worker and the Don Brose Leadership Award.

A first-team All-WCHA pick this season, Blueger led the Mavericks in scoring (35 points) and assists (24) and ranked second in the WCHA in scoring (28 points, including a conference-high 21 assists in 28 league games). He finished his career with 108 points in 155 games. His 13 game-winning goals rank fourth on MSU's all-time list.

Here's the rest of the list:

Unsung Hero — Jon Jutzi, senior defenseman. Established career highs for goals (5) and points (15) in his final collegiate season while playing in all 41 games. He tied for second on the team with four power play goals and was second with 56 blocked shots

Most Improved Player — Daniel Brickley, freshman defenseman. A WCHA All-Rooke selection, he had 2 goals and 11 points in 36 points.  He tied for third on team at +9, and his 66 shots on goal led MSU freshmen and tied for 11th in the nation among freshmen defensemen.

Three-Star Award — Bryce Gervais, senior forward. A third-team All-WCHA pick, he led MSU with 16 goals and was second on the team with 26 points. He also led the Mavericks with 141 shots on goal and three short-handed goals. He finished his college career with school records for games played (163), consecutive games played (163) and short-handed goals (9).

If Puckato had a vote on some of these awards, here's who I would have picked (I omit the leadership award because it's more of an internal award and the Three Stars because it's based on tallies from the the post-game Three Stars during home games):

Most Valuable Player: Blueger. Not only was he the team's top point-producer, but he was an excellent defensive forward (+10, which led MSU's forwards) and reliable faceoff taker. Saw a ton of ice time late in so many close games. Coach Mike Hastings' praise for Blueger's value to the team, it seemed, grew every week as the season went on.

Hardest Worker: It's hard to argue with Blueger for this, but if I were spreading the awards around, I might give it to C.J. Franklin, who was third on the team in points (25) and second in goals (14). Brought a lot of energy, was willing to learn and play a new position during the season, moving from wing to center (corrected).

Unsung Hero: Jutzi is a good choice here. I think, as a defenseman, he flew under the radar while fellow D Casey Nelson — the WCHA's Defensive Player of the Year — and team captain Carter Foguth received more attention. Logged a lot of minutes, blocked shots, scored a couple of game-winners. 

Most Improved: Again, hard to quarrel with Brickley, especially if you recall his struggles early in the year (remember the preseason exhibition game?). His play and his confidence improved week after week, and he'll be a key D next season. However, I like to compare season to season, so I'd give this award to forward Zeb Knutson for his transformation from freshman (3 points, 9 games) to sophomore (17 points, 39 games).

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

'Minneflowta' to debut on May 10

Even a bald man such as I can appreciate this ... 

ESPN's E:60 special about Minnesota high school hockey hair with NHL analyst Barry Melrose will be aired next Tuesday, May 10 at 9 p.m.  

This was filmed during the Minnesota state boys hockey tournament and features players from those teams -- included Mankato West. Be on the lookout for some of those Scarlets players in the trailer, which makes the special look absolutely fantastic.

Oh, the password is hair.