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Minnesota Match-Up

04/07/2022, 4:15pm CDT
By Bryan Zollman

What separates the Mavericks and Gophers?

Other than 82 miles of interstate, what else will separate Minnesota State University and the University of Minnesota when the puck drops Thursday night in Boston?

Plenty. And perhaps, not much.

The Mavericks from Mankato are in search of their first Division I finals appearance, but in order to get there will have to go through the Big Ten champions and not just the most storied college program in Minnesota, but one of the top programs, historically, in the country.

The Minnesota Gophers, meanwhile, are looking to reach their first final since 2014 when they lost to Union. That was also the last year they reached the Frozen Four. Despite having more NCAA tournament wins than any program in history (57), and despite appearing in their 22nd Frozen Four in school history, they will have to go through not just the No. 1 ranked team in the country this year, but the winningest program in the country over the past nine years.

Yes, Minnesota State has won more games than any other NCAA Division I program in the past nine years. In the past five they have won their conference (four in the WCHA and one in the CCHA) and are making their second consecutive frozen Four appearance having lost to St. Cloud State last year in the semifinals. 

The teams have met just three times in the past three years. Last season the Mavericks ousted the Gophers from NCAA tournament play with a decisive 4-0 victory. Two years prior to that they swept a weekend series in November of 2018, 5-1 and 2-1. 

The Gophers lead the overall head-to-head series (37-17-6), but many of those wins came during Minnesota State's infancy as a D1 program. 

That said, records can be tossed out with the Zamboni snow because once the puck drops, a bounce here, a big save there, a missed call or bad call or a big play could determine just what team gets to represent the State of Hockey in the finals on Saturday night.

In the meantime let's take a closer look at these two teams and how they match up in all facets of the game.

We will start with the two head coaches:

Neither Gopher head coach Bob Motzko or MSU head coach Mike Hastings has ever coached in an NCAA championship game. But one of them will get that opportunity after Thursday.

Also, they have traveled strikingly similar paths to get where they are today.

Here is a closer look at the two coaches and their respective careers:

Bob Motzko

Motzko is homegrown talent who has made more of a name for himself behind the bench than on it.  That isn't a knock on Motzko, who hailed from the not-exactly-hockey hotbed of Austin, MN. He went on to play juniors and eventually for the Dubuque Fighting Saints before joining St. Cloud State as they transitioned to Division I hockey. He was a two-year letter winner as a varsity player for the Huskies and after his playing days immediately joined the coaching staff under legendary Herb Brooks. 

After a season with the SCSU coaching staff, Motzko became general manager and head coach of North Iowa of the USHL from 1987-91. In 1989 they won the national title and Motzko was named coach of the year.

He spent the next eight years as an assistant in Miami (Ohio) with one season as an assistant at Denver. In 1999 he rejoined the USHL, this time as a general manager and head coach for Sioux Falls. He had a .770 winning percentage over two seasons and was named General Manager of the Year in 2000.

He joined Don Lucia's University of Minnesota staff in 2001 through 2005 before becoming head coach at St. Cloud State University, where he served until 2018, ultimately replacing Lucia as the next Gophers head coach. 

Motzko has a strong track record of success, vastly improving the St. Cloud State program as a perennial contender in the NCAA. He has won at every level he has coached and taking over the premiere program in the State of Hockey has been no different. Although there were some bumps in the road early on, now four years in Motzko has his team on the cusp of playing for a national title. The Gophers haven't won a national championship since 2003 when they won back-to-back under Lucia while Motzko was an assistant. He has been there and done that as an assistant. Can he get it done now as head coach?

Mike Hastings

To do so he would have to get past Hastings' Mavericks. Hastings has followed a strikingly similar path as Motzko. Although born in Oregon, he attended high school in Crookston and also played junior hockey in Austin, MN. He transitioned to Rochester of the USHL before playing at St. Cloud State before suffering a career -ending injury. 

Shortly after his playing days he was hired as an assistant at SCSU before moving on to the USHL and the Omaha Lancers where he spent 14 seasons as head coach and general manager. His success earned him an assistant role with the Gophers for one year in 2008-09 before moving on to the University of Nebraska-Omaha where he served as associate head coach for three years. 

He landed the job at Minnesota State in 2012 and is in his 10th season. Since then his Maverick teams have racked up 273 wins and in the past nine years have won more games than any other team in the country. The team has won no less than 21 games in those nine years after having just two 20-win seasons in the program's first 16 seasons as a Division I program. This year they set a school record with 37 wins, and are hoping for two more. 

Hastings' squads have reached the NCAA tournament six times (2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2021). Last year they reached the Frozen Four only to be ousted by none other than Hastings' alma mater St. Cloud State.

Hastings has won the Spencer Penrose Award in 2015 and 2021 and was recently awarded a third time with the 2022 award. The award goes to the nation's top college coach. Hastings was also chosen as the WCHA's Coach fo the Decade from 2010-2020. He has also coached at the international level, coaching the U.S. Junior World Team. 

This will be Hastings' second Frozen Four appearance. He has yet to coach in a national championship game. To do that, he will have to coach the Mavericks past the Gophers.

So who has the advantage from a coaching perspective? We are going to call this one a draw. These two programs have two of the best coaches in the country. They both have their teams running on all cylinders and will have their players prepared come game time.


Motzko vs. Hastings

Bob Motzko Mike Hastings
Hometown Austin, MN Eugene, OR
College St. Cloud State St. Cloud State
Age 61 56
Years Coaching 35 22
Years as Head Coach 17 10
Years at Current Post 4 10
Overall Win-Loss 360-241-60 273-95-24
Overall Win % .544 .696
Record with Current Team 58-37-11 273-95-24
Win % w/current team .547 .696
Conference Titles 4 7
National Titles 0 0
Frozen Four Appearances 2nd 2nd

On paper it would appear Minnesota State is by far the better team - more wins, more goals scored, less goals against, a better power play, and slightly older players.

But hockey fans have to take into consideration strength of schedule. The two teams had very few like opponents. Both teams played Michigan St., Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, Notre Dame, UMASS, and St. Thomas.

Their records are similar. Both team split with St. Cloud State. MSU lost to Michigan and the Gophers went 2-3 against the Wolverines. Both teams beat Notre Dame and UMASS. MSU swept UMD while UMD swept the Gophers. MSU also played St. Thomas six times, going 6-0 while the Gophers also beat the Tommies once.

The Gophers and Minnesota State last played in last year's NCAA tournament where the Mavericks defeated the Gophers 4-0.

So what can we predict this time around? Let's take a closer look at team stats.

The Mavericks lead in most categories. They have more shots on goal, more goals scored, less goals against, a better shot percentage, more shots on goal per game, more assists, a better power playing and a  better face off percentage. 

Their top scorer is Ryan Sandelin with 21 goals compared to Gopher Ben Meyers with 17. Their top point-getter is Nathan Smith with 50 compared to Meyers' 41. The Mavs also have three players with a Plus-36 rating compared to the Gophers top guy Jackson LaCombe at 25.

Both teams are well balanced offensively and defensively. The Gophers may be more skilled individually, but the Mavericks have an in-your-face offense that consistently pushes pucks into the offensive zone and on net. Their power play is exceptional and they have a several players who can bury the puck. 


Tale of the Tape. Who is better on paper?

Minnesota Gophers Minnesota State Mavericks
Record 26-12-0 37-5-0
Winning Percentage 0.697 0.881
Conference Big Ten CCHA
Conference Record 18-6-0 23-3-0
Conference Win % 0.771 0.885
Home Record 13-7-0 20-1-0
Away Record 11-5-0 14-3-0
Neutral Record 2-0-0 3-1-0
Oldest Player Matt Denman (4/20/1998) Jack McNeely (12/18/1996)
Youngest Player Chaz Lucius (5/3/03) Bennett Zmolek (4/17-2002)
Average Age 21.5 22.7
Tallest Player Collin Schmidt/Jaxon Nelson/Sam Rossini -6'4" Tony Malinowski - 6'5"
Biggest Player Collin Schmidt - 230 LBS Tony Malinowski - 205 LBS
Average Height 6.66 feet 6.416 feet
Average Weight 191.67 LBS 183 LBS
Freshmen 7 8
Sophomores 4 7
Juniors 10 6
Seniors 6 7
Minnesota Players 21 9
Canadian Players 0 4
International Players 0 2
USHL Players 19 17
NAHL Players 2 2
BCHL Players 1 6
Transfers 1 3
Shots on Goal 1207 1378
Shots on Goal Against 1000 794
Goals Scored 137 172
Goals Against 86 54
Goals Per Game 3.6 4.1
Goals Allowed Per Game 2.3 1.3
Shot Percentage 0.114 0.125
Shots on Goal Per Game 31.7 32.8
Assists 237 303
Saves 914 740
Power Play 25-116 44-162
Power Play Percentage 0.216 0.272
Short Handed Goals 2 2
Empty Net Goals 8 7
Penalties-Minutes 126-326 179-394
PIM Per Game 3.3 4.3
Faceoffs Won-Lost 1143-1041 1319-961
Face Off Win % 0.523 0.579

Nathan Smith leads the Mavericks with 50 points, second in the nation behind Denver's Bobby Brink (56)

Both teams have plenty of firepower and both teams also have solid defenders and good goaltending.

But let's look at the playmakers. The Mavericks have four players with more than 40 points and six players with more than 30 and 11 with more than 20. Simply put, they can put the biscuit in the basket.

Nathan Smith is their best offensive player and was a top 10 Hobey finalists with 50 points. Julian Napravnik has 49, Brendan Furry 43 and Cade Borchardt 40. Ryan Sandelin leads the team with 21 goals, but seven players have scored in double digits 13 players have double-digit assists. 

The power play has been phenomenal. They have scored 44 power play goals to date and are converting at a 27.5 percent clip. For the Gophers to be successful they will have ti stay out of the box and eliminate as many man advantages for MSU as possible. 

The Playmakers

Minnesota Minnesota State
Goals Ben Meyers 17 Ryan Sandelin 21
Assists Jackson LaCombe 27 Smith/Napravnik/Furry 31
Points Ben Meyers 41 Nathan Smith 50
Shots Blake McLaughlin 107 Julian Napravnik 125
PPG Matthew Knies 5 Borchardt/Lutz 7
GWG Ben Meyers 5 Cade Borchardt 5
PIM Matt Staudacher 35 Nathan Smith 41
Plus/Minus Jackson Lacombe Plus-25 McNeely/Napravnik/Borchardt Plus-36

Ben Meyers ia a Hobey Baker finalist and leads the Gophers with 41 points heading into Thursday's game.

But let's face it, the Gophers have a high-powered offense as well led by senior Ben Meyers. Meyers is a Hobey Baker finalist and leads the team with 41 points. Strong, gritty, deadly on face-offs, he could very well be the best player in college hockey. The Delano native has size, speed and skill, and has that added tenacity it takes to will his team to victories.

Blake Mclaughlin, a Grand Rapids native, has 33 points and Matthew Kneis has 32. Defenseman Jackson LaCombe has 27 assists and 30 points as a blue liner and senior Sammy Walker has 27 points for the Gophers. 

Chaz Lucius has also made a solid impression as an incoming freshman after being chosen in the first round of the 2022 NHL Draft. Lucuis has 19 points in 24 games and is one of seven current Gophers drafted by an NHL team.

The Gophers are more skilled offensively at the blue line than the Mavericks with the likes of Lacombe, Brock Faber, Mike Koster, and Ryan Johnson, but the Mavericks may be better at D-Zone play in terms of keeping pucks to the outside and not allowing as many shots to get to Hobey Baker finalist Dryden McKay.

Player Justen Close Dryden McKay
Team Minnesota Minnesota State
Year Junior Senior
Age 23 24
Hometown Kindersley, Sask Downers Grove, IL
HT/WGT 5-10/175 6-0/175
2022 W-L-T 14-4-0 37-4-0
2022 SV % 0.929 0.934
2022 GAA 1.83 1.28
2022 Shutouts 3 10
Career W-L-T 15-4-0 112-19-4
Career Sv% 0.924 0.932
Career GAA 1.91 1.45
Career Shutouts 3 34

Dryden McKay is the all-time leader in NCAA wins and shutouts. He is looking to add to those totals this week.

And therein could lie the biggest difference between the two squads. MSU's McKay is a senior and holds the NCAA record for career wins and shutouts. His counterpart, Justen Close, wasn't even the starter coming into the season for the Gophers. Jack LaFontaine, last year's Mike Ricther Award winner, opted to sign an NHL deal and scooted the pros, giving Close an opportunity at the limelight. 

Close has made the most of it, performing extremely well by posting a 14-4-0 record, a .929 save percentage and and a 1.83 goals against average. His numbers were far better than LaFontaine's when he left the team (12-8-0/.900/.2.69).

But McKay has the upper hand not just due to his talent, but also his experience. Close played in just Ione game as a sophomore before being thrust into the starting role midway through this season.

McKay has faced more shots, played in ,multiple big games, and is considered the nation's top goaltender.

But while McKay may have the upper hand, the game itself could come down to that one big save or one easy goal either goalie makes or allows.

In the end, it appears that both of these teams are more similar than they are different. Plenty of scoring power, a strong defensive corps, and good coaching and goaltending.

It could make for a classic.

For those who love college hockey in Minnesota, at least they can rest their faith knowing that at least one Minnesota team will be in the national championship game.

Last year Minnesota had three teams in the Frozen Four and failed to bring home the title.

Hopefully this year is a different story.

Tag(s): State Of Hockey