It may be too early to call Mankato State a rival on par with Minnesota-Duluth or St. Cloud State, but the Mavericks served notice over the weekend of their intentions to play with the big boys in the WCHA in years to come.
And Minnesota has no problem with that.
The Gophers men’s hockey team handled the Mavericks comfortably in the series opener and hesitantly in the finale, but came into the weekend badly in need of a boost. Against Mankato State, they had to earn it.
“It’s got the potential to be a good rivalry,” Gophers forward Reggie Berg said. “There’s no doubt about that. It was good for them to come up here, and it was good for us to get a feel for what they’re going to have to offer whenever they get admitted to the league.”
It could be said that the Gophers’ first WCHA sweep of the season came a couple of years too soon. The Mavericks have applied for admission to the league and will participate in this season’s postseason tournament, but won’t be full members of the WCHA until probably the 1999-2000 season.
Still, Mankato State’s schedule this season includes every WCHA team except Wisconsin in its first year as a Division I independent.
The Mavericks are 7-9-2 overall, 2-7-1 against the WCHA, with their two wins coming against Minnesota-Duluth and Denver. St. Cloud State won and tied with Mankato State, and Colorado College and the Gophers earned sweeps.
But coach Don Brose is quick to point out that his Mavericks are keeping games close even though his squad is undermanned. As a first-year D-I team, Mankato State is limited to 12.8 scholarships rather than the usual 18.
That leaves the Mavericks not quite set up for the fast, physical style of play in the WCHA, which is especially evident on the power play. Brose said playing shorthanded is more of a hindrance for his team than most.
Minnesota scored four of its 10 goals this weekend with a man advantage, including a 55-second, two-goal spurt on Saturday.
“If we’re skating five on five, I think we have a better chance of skating with these teams,” Brose said. “We’re undermanned, and it’s going to take another year or two of recruiting to get us up to the level of some of the premier WCHA teams.”
Gophers coach Doug Woog, who’s seen two new teams — Alaska-Anchorage (1993) and St. Cloud State (1990) — admitted to the WCHA in his 12-year tenure, mostly agreed with Brose. It’s not going to happen overnight.
“Their performance was stronger I think than the score would indicate,” Woog said. “They’re organized; they work very hard. Depth is an issue with them, but they just need some more time.
“They play a style of hockey that fits Division I. They make passes, they try to make plays and their goaltender isn’t giving up a lot of soft goals. In time, they’ll get better.”
But for now, this is a team Minnesota should beat. The Mavericks have 15 Minnesotans on their 28-man roster, but the Gophers have yet to see a recruit pass them up for the chance to play in Mankato.
Minnesota routinely signs the cream of the in-state crop, a trend that seems likely to continue for some time. And that fact hasn’t been lost on any of the Gophers players.
“It’s no knock against them, they played hard tonight, but we didn’t want to lose to Mankato State,” said senior co-captain Casey Hankinson, the third member of his family to play for the Gophers. “There’s a lot of pride involved. Some of these guys were passed over by Minnesota and went to Mankato State, and we just wanted to prove that we have the better team.”
That they did. But the growth curve for Minnesota hockey continues to surge, and the gap is sure to close in the future. In the meantime, the idea of a fourth Division I team in the state has piqued the interest of hockey fans.
“Some of our Minnesota kids played against their Minnesota kids,” Brose said. “We can bring something to these places, as far as fans are concerned, because people want to come and see what the new kid on the block is up to.”