State of Hockey Championship at stake for Minnesota State, Minnesota in Frozen Four Semifinals – College Hockey

Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings skates during training Wednesday at TD Garden in Boston. The Mavericks play Minnesota in the Frozen Four semifinals on Thursday (photo: Jim Rosvold).

BOSTON – Hockey in Minnesota is a way of life. The way everyone plays the game connects the sport with its participants on a spiritual level, and the idyllic, iconic backdrop of the frozen lakes and ponds boasts a made for TV soul representing Rockwell images in its purest form.

The state itself claims a nickname – the Hockey State – as it backs its status as having the most hockey players in the country, and the winners are celebrated as immortal legends permanently engraved in its annals.

In college hockey, the management of the Minnesota tradition is carried out by the six institutions that sponsor the sport at Division I level, but few are as large as Minnesota’s flagship institution in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers were for decades an entrenched piece of the Frozen Four landscape, almost to the point that qualification was a birthright before the game’s growth and the emergence of other programs, including other schools from their own footprint, moved them off stage. .

It culminated in last year’s Loveland Regional Finals as Minnesota State advanced to its first Frozen Four by defeating Minnesota 4-0. The Mavericks played in the national semifinals against St. Maarten. Cloud State in the first ever Frozen Four meeting between Minnesota-based teams, and where Minnesota Duluth played UMass in the second semifinal, the absence of the flagship program from a national championship weekend with three Minnesota teams remained conspicuous.

That loss extended Minnesota’s Frozen Four drought to six consecutive tournaments, but it helped ignite and fight to harden the team for this year’s run. On Thursday, the team that won the ten major championships of the regular season and hosted the conference title fight before more than 10,000 screaming Minnesota residents will try to regain its place as the state’s torchbearer with a rematch against the team that prevented its admission during last year’s tournament.

“We are a very close group,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “There were three Minnesota teams last year and we were not one of them. They should enjoy that we were not there. If you want to pick on a team, they will pick on Gophers, I can tell you that. [But] we got our chance this year and we are back in it with [Minnesota State]. “

The actual matchup will include teams that are not much different from each other. Minnesota can score from anywhere on the ice and boasts one of the game’s best natural goal scorers in Ben Meyers. Minnesota State is counting on Nathan Smith, the second leading goal scorer in the country. Both attacks are among the top four in the nation in overall scoring, but both run into stingy defenses backed by goalkeepers who are able to close out any opponent.

Both have complete teams that are capable of playing complete games and any difference in number is easily explained away. Minnesota, for example, allowed over one goal per game more than the Mavericks, but Minnesota State Dryden McKay is a Hobey Baker Award finalist compared to Gophers’ transition from Jack LaFontaine to Justen Close.

“It took Justen two weeks,” Motzko said. “He went 2-2 in his first two weeks, and then went on to play. He did not play for two and a half years, [but] all of us had a huge faith in him. You just can not sit on the bench and get playing time. We just had to keep throwing him out there. You could see him get stronger as it went and gain confidence in himself, the players in him. It was just a handful of things that just kept sticking together. “

“I think when I go all the way from their backs, I can go all the way down in their lineup, they beat teams with depth [and] beat teams with their defenders, “Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said.[Close] has come in and has done a phenomenal job of hitting close to 0.930 in terms of save percentage. For us, we do not want to pour gas on that fire. The Puck management and us trying to use some of the same things I just said about Minnesota for ourselves – we’ve used our depth, our backs have been good, and our goalkeeping has been good. If you put it all together, it’s a pretty good matchup. ”

For Hastings, the quiet confidence is exactly the salt-of-the-earth flavor he helped build in Minnesota State. The university is far from the clear light of the twin cities, though the Division II school is an underplayed powerhouse, and Mankato is closer to the Iowa state border than it is to Minneapolis and St. Louis. Paul, although still less than 100 miles from the metropolitan area. From a college hockey point of view, it’s a Neverland that might not have thought it was entirely possible to compete at the national level, even if it did not stop believing in its team.

“We hosted Hockey Day in Minnesota,” said Hastings, “and had over 10,000 people inside and outside a football stadium on our campus. I think that says a lot for the leadership of our community to be able to handle it,” “but more importantly, the grassroots support. The amount of players who were able to get on the ice at that time said a lot about the southern part of the state right now.”

“There’s a kind of buzz around Mankato,” defender Wyatt Aamodt said. “It has almost become normal, but I never think it will be the case for us. We’ve talked about this before. This is special, so never miss this opportunity, this opportunity. That has been our conversation, so to speak. That kind of thing does not happen often. “

What’s at stake Thursday night is a trip to the national championship. It’s a game between two very good hockey teams as part of a very good Frozen Four. Two former conference mates reunite to decide who goes on to Saturday, and the losing team will have to embark on the long flight home without its championship trophy.

But it is also the state championship of the Hockey State. Minnesota won the Big Ten regular season and hosted its sold-out crowd for a game against Michigan. Minnesota State won the CCHA and hosted its sold-out crowd for the first league game against Bemidji State, another Minnesota team. They advanced through their respective regions and now meet again, this time on the biggest stage in college hockey.

“Just growing up as a Minnesota kid, and it was obviously pretty cool to see all the Division I programs in our state,” Aamodt said. “Just to get to play [Minnesota]a bit of the big dog for Minnesota college teams, as people would say, on the national stage [is] pretty fat. “

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