Dynamic duo leads surprising Mavericks

Adam Fink

Minnesota State-Mankato men’s hockey coach Troy Jutting acted on a hunch midway through last season.

The third-year coach decided to put emerging forward Shane Joseph and rookie Grant Stevenson on the same line for the second half of the 2001-02 campaign.

The pair could have collapsed under the pressure and scrutiny, but didn’t. And while the early results were mixed, there is little debating the current outcome.

Heading into a weekend series at Minnesota, Jutting’s gut feeling is paying off for the surprising Mavericks (10-7-7, 8-5-5 WCHA) this season. Joseph (33 points) and Stevenson (32) are No. 1 and 2 in conference scoring and Minnesota State-Mankato sits in third place while riding a nine-game unbeaten streak.

“These guys weren’t talked about much last year,” Jutting said. “But they both stepped up their games and get the job done on the ice.”

In Minnesota State’s 10 wins, the duo has combined for 37 points (3.7 average points per game). In the Mavericks’ seven losses, Stevenson and Joseph have totaled 27 points (3.85).

It’s that kind of consistent production Jutting envisioned when he first put the duo together. By the time this season rolled around, Stevenson and Joseph had built an on and off-ice relationship.

“It’s like we are on the same brain wave,” Stevenson said. “I know what he is going to do in certain situations and he knows what I am going to do.”

The chemistry Stevenson and Joseph show on the ice stems from beyond the city of Mankato. Both grew up in the Canadian providence of Alberta, playing the same hockey style.

Both have a similar dry sense of humor. Each likes to lead by example, instead of making their voice heard in the locker room. And Stevenson and Joseph both overcame obstacles en route to

establishing themselves as elite forwards – and a special tandem – in the WCHA.

For Stevenson, it was bulking up. A summer working in the weight room is the main reason for his confidence boost.

Joseph’s track is different. Last year, the 21-year-old scored 20 goals, yet went largely unnoticed outside of south-central Minnesota.

“I knew I could do better,” Joseph said. “Our team as a whole was young and our record wasn’t too good. It’s hard to prove yourself when your team is struggling.”

A recent highlight of Joseph’s flourishing play is the game-winning goal he scored against Michigan Tech on Jan. 11.

The marker came on an overtime penalty shot. Last year, Joseph might not have made the shot.

“Everyone just seems to be on the same page right now,” the junior said. “That makes everyone better.”

Establishing themselves as the Mavericks’ marquee names has its price for Stevenson and Joseph. Both have noticed more – and harder – checks. In addition, they can tell the other team is focusing on containing them.

The seventh-ranked Gophers (12-6-5, 7-4-3) are an example of such philosophy. Coach Don Lucia doesn’t plan anything special for the Mavericks weekend visit to Mariucci Arena but he stressed the importance of keeping Stevenson and Joseph in check.

“They are the catalyst for the team,” Lucia said. “Night in and night out, they make the team go.”

Stevenson and Joseph can’t pinpoint the moments they realized they had arrived on the college hockey scene. However, now that they are here, they have no intention of looking back.

With Minnesota State on pace for its best season in seven years, the talented forwards are enjoying the ride.

“This has been a fun season so far,” Stevenson said. “We have high expectations for the rest of the season.”

And to think all of this success started merely on a coach’s instinct.

From the benchÖ

gopher forward Nick Anthony will be back in the lineup this weekend. The alternate captain last played Jan. 10 in the first game of the North Dakota series.

ï Saturday’s game time is 2:05 p.m. at Mariucci Arena. The unusual starting time was scheduled due to the 7 p.m. men’s basketball game at Williams Arena.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]