When Nebraska Omaha and Minnesota State learned when they would be playing each other this season, the biggest initial storyline was that both teams would be playing against one of their former coaches.
That’s still true now going into this weekend’s battle of the two sets of Mavericks, of course. Now, however, with both teams coming into the series having played remarkably well lately, those reunions are no longer the only thing worth looking out for in this Friday-Saturday series.
Let’s look first, though, at the storyline of this series involving the teams’ coaching staffs.
In April, MSU relieved Troy Jutting of his duties as the Mankato, Minn. team’s head coach after 12 years at the helm and another 10 years before that as an assistant coach with the purple Mavericks.
It wasn’t long after that that MSU named Mike Hastings to Jutting’s old post. Hastings, 46, had spent the previous three seasons as UNO’s associate head coach under Dean Blais.
Hastings was soon replaced at UNO by former St. Cloud State assistant coach Steve Johnson.
Hastings, who had previously spent 14 years as the head coach of the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League, was, as an Omaha hockey legend, viewed as UNO’s heir apparent to Blais, 61.
Instead, Hastings, a member of the Omaha Hockey Hall of Fame, opted to take a head coaching role sooner than fans in Omaha had hoped.
Jutting wasn’t out of college hockey long, though. Later in the summer, UNO assistant coach Brian Renfrew took a scouting position for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, and Renfrew’s role in Omaha was filled by Jutting in August.
There has been no indication that the players at UNO and MSU don’t miss Hastings and Jutting, respectively, on their benches. That said, however, both teams are thriving under reshuffled guidance.
UNO (10-5-1, 3-6-1 WCHA) comes into this weekend’s series – the Mavericks’ first at home in three weeks – ranked No. 13 in the current United States College Hockey Online poll. The red Mavericks have surpassed most prognosticators’ expectations so far this season, and eight wins in their last ten games have turned a lot of heads around the WCHA.
Also on a hot streak coming into this Friday- Saturday set at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center are the WCHA’s other set of Mavericks. MSU (9-5-2, 7-5-0) has been the league’s biggest surprise so far this season, sitting in third place and riding a six-game winning streak.
UNO had a seven-game winning streak of its own recently. The red Mavericks swept Michigan Tech on the road, Minnesota Duluth and Alabama Huntsville at home, and Minnesota on the road all in a row in November before dropping a 3-2 decision in a second game in Minneapolis on Dec. 1.
UNO is 1-2-0 so far this month following a perfect November, but it’s been against tough competition. All four games were on the road against the fourth-ranked Gophers and, last weekend, No. 17 St. Cloud State.
MSU’s six wins on the bounce, while certainly impressive against any teams in the WCHA, have come against weaker opposition than what UNO has faced lately. The purple Mavericks swept an underachieving Wisconsin squad in Madison three weeks ago before sweeping both Bemidji State and Alaska Anchorage – the two lowest teams in the WCHA standings – in Mankato.
Before that winning streak began, MSU was off to a 3-5-2 start to the season.
The wins have started piling up since then, though, and that’s partly down to the Mankato Mavericks’ leadership up front. Sophomore forward Matt Leitner is tied for eighth place in the WCHA scoring chart with 4 goals and 15 assists for 19 points, and senior Eriah Hayes (10 goals, 5 assists) isn’t far behind.
At the other end of the ice, MSU hasn’t conceded a whole lot of goals. Freshman goaltender Stephon Williams has the league’s best goals-against average (1.61 in 15 appearances). The Fairbanks, Alaska native is also third in save percentage at .932.
This may be a series where goals for either team would come at a premium. UNO has the second-leading scoring offense in the WCHA at 3.56 goals per game, but the red and purple Mavericks are listed as the second and third-stingiest defenses in the league, respectively.
UNO is off next week before facing ninth-ranked Quinnipiac on the road in Hamden, Conn. Dec. 29-30. MSU’s next games following the UNO series are also in Connecticut two weeks from now, where the purple Mavericks will take part in the UConn Hockey Classic tournament in Storrs.