CCHA RinkRap: Excitement, Spotlight on Minnesota

The Minnesota State Mavericks played a thrilling home-and-away game with the famed Golden Gophers, a commotion in St. Paul rocks the CCHA, and Northern Michigan embraces road life.

NCAA preview at Mankato

It was bigger than CCHA, it was bigger than intersectional play, it was a series so big only an NCAA tournament could contain it.

Minnesota State’s flagship CCHA school went up against No. 2 National University of Minnesota in a drama-filled suburban series.

2022 Minnesota vs. Minnesota State – Men

Mankato’s new Mavericks faced an existential threat to both their self-esteem and the all-knowing Pairwise rating, a legitimate crisis in just their second game of the season.

On Saturday night, MSU lost a game and a goal, and after misconduct by David Silye, downed a skater for five minutes at a Minnesota club keen to snuff out their NCAA rival.

“Things got a little out of control,” Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings said. “We could have pulled out, made excuses and said, ‘It’s not going to be our night.'”

But thanks to the willpower of 4,900 leather-loving fans in Mankato, brave performances from two newcomers and a winning laser from Minnesota’s favorite son, the Mavericks survived a brutal ordeal that allowed college hockey fans to revel in playoff-style hockey so early in the season.

It was 120 minutes of hockey, spanning both ends of State Route 169, reminding fans from Michigan to Massachusetts that the real state of hockey is Minnesota, always and forever.

The latest example of Minnesota’s clutch came in Saturday’s comeback from the Mavericks.

His first goal came from bench freshman Campbell Cichosz (Albert Lea, MN), and a late winner came from senior sniper Ryan Sandelin (Hermantown, MN).

Due to the series split, National and Pairwise polls will remain flat with both Minnesota clubs in the top 5 nationally. Polls are overflowing with schools in Minnesota, including perennial powerhouses St. Cloud and Duluth.

This home-and-home showdown was a showcase of Minnesota talent, none more impressive than Gopher rookie Jimmy Snuggerud, who scored four goals in two games.

If the name is familiar, it’s for good reason. His father was a skilled hustler for three American institutions a generation ago – the Gophers, the US Olympic team and the Buffalo Sabers.

The elder Snuggerud was known as an “honest” hockey player, a guy who took no shortcuts to get into the NHL, a league that treated Americans like second-class hockey citizens in the 1980s.

Thirty-five years later, his offspring was drafted in the NHL’s first round, an elite player with a glorious future. Even Mankato fans have stars in their eyes when it comes to the state’s latest wonderkid.

“Snuggerud definitely has our number,” Mankato superfan Curt Kliewer said after the show’s jaw-dropping conclusion. “The Gophers are a little better, but we got them tonight.”

Gophers subscription holder Kim Hansen agrees.

“This is our year,” said Hansen, who was in Boston last spring when the Gophers’ promising season was shattered by the Mavericks’ defensive stranglehold. “I’m sure (Bob) Motzko [Gophers head coach] showed the tape from last year’s game, and they’ll want revenge on Bob. Those home and away streaks have always been meaningful, and even with a loss this weekend, it feels like this year we’ve got that. See you in Tampa.”

And, there is the catch for the rest of the country. The Frozen Four is a school playground in Minnesota. Not only have the Gophers and Mavs participated in the past two editions, but along with Duluth and St. Cloud, Minnesota teams have played for the NCAA championship in each of the past five years.

As any college hockey fan knows, Saturday night hero Sandelin has the DNA of two of Minnesota’s superpowers: He scores for Minnesota State, while his father, Scott, coaches Duluth.

That relationship will be on full display this weekend, but on Saturday he focused on the Mavs’ decisive victory over a superb Minnesota Gophers team.

“It could have been easy for us to throw in the towel,” Sandelin said in a sweaty post-match interview. “These games are huge for the Pairwise. Something we can build on.”

Typical of Sandelin, when asked to describe his clutch goal, he used the plural pronoun “we”.

Hastings visibly shuddered at the doomsday scenario his club would have faced had his Mavs not pulled off Saturday’s comeback.

“You’re 0-2, and you have Duluth coming to town?” Hastings exhaled and shook his head. “We’ve always been proud to defend the home ice, to have the guys find a way to win the game.”

To borrow a golf analogy, Hastings knew his team’s resilience turned a potential double-bogey into a saved par, and the Pairwise computer will generously reward their comeback.

“The team we played against [Minnesota] going to win a lot of hockey games,” he added. “It’s one in the bank, a quality win against a quality opponent. They can’t take that away from you. It gives us the opportunity to breathe.”

Luckily for Hastings, his club remains in Mankato for the two-game set with Duluth.

None of those games impact the CCHA rankings, but on a macro level, everyone from Amherst to Ann Arbor knows the road to Tampa is through Minnesota, and those intrastate competitions in October foreshadow the knockout matches that will determine the history to come. April.

Others from Minnesota

Ninety minutes north of Mankato, history was being made on the ice of St. Paul, Minnesota’s hockey epicenter.

St. Thomas freshman Josh Eernisse (Apple Valley, Minn.) printed on the left wing in overtime, then deftly put down the skating goal for the Tommies, the first Division I overtime victory for the nascent program.

St. Thomas coach Rico Blasi didn’t reveal his team’s exhilaration in postgame remarks. He coaches for long-term results and knows that while the win was big, it wasn’t big enough for anyone to rest on false laurels.

“We’re not there yet, but we understand a bit better how to win at this level,” Blasi said. “I was really happy with how we played our third period and how we came back. That’s an important lesson.”

Blasi is the only CCHA coach with a resume to match Hastings, a body of work that includes several Frozen Four appearances and too many Coach of the Year awards to fit in his St. Paul office.

He is college hockey’s answer to Napoleon, a brilliant leader who reinvented himself in the state of hockey.

He’s something of an underdog, the only non-Minnesotan in Hockey State’s close-knit fraternity of six Division I coaching teams. But he has a scout extraordinaire in Leon Hayward. In their sophomore year, Blasi continues his relentless march toward protest.

All three of the Tommies’ goals came from Minnesota natives: freshman Luc Laylin (St. Michael, Minn.), Northern Michigan transfer Mack Byers, (Long Lake, Minn.) and the aforementioned Eernisse.

CCHA coaches voted St. Thomas last in league polls, a vote that just doesn’t add up, according to Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan.

“St. Thomas is going to be a lot better than he was drafted,” Shawhan said at ACHC media day.

He knows in his heart that his Huskies will be in a duel with the Tommies to gain a foothold in the CCHA rankings.

Placing a proven winner like Blasi in the heartland of Minnesota is bad news for league rivals.

“They have the ability within their footprint in Minneapolis to attract transfer students to come in and play, and they can recruit from that environment,” Shawhan added.

Shawhan is a dedicated student of the game, and he clearly studied the Tommies roster before media day. His premonition proved prescient on Saturday, as the Minnesotans danced onto the St. Thomas ice three times in the dramatic win. Blasi signals that a new power is sprouting in the Twin Cities.

Horse racing on the Upper Peninsula

Michigan Tech, Lake Superior and Northern Michigan have won seven NCAA titles between them, and the race for dominance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a prerequisite for playoff success.

Northern Michigan took the lead in the first corner of this three-horse race, as the Wildcats enjoyed their first road trip of the season, driving to central New York and skating with an impressive sweep on Colgate from ECAC Hockey.

Veteran Thoroughbreds Andre Ghantous and AJ Vanderbeck generated a crucial offense for the Cats.

Not only did the wins build a modest three-game winning streak for NMU, but they gave all CCHA teams a boost in the Pairwise rankings. Moving away from Marquette was clearly okay with the Cats.

“Early in the season and being on the road gives the guys a few days to spend doing nothing but hockey,” NMU head coach Grant Potulny said via text message. “We had some great dinners and organic team bonding on the bus and at the airport.”

And how about winning a pair of games? It couldn’t hurt.

“100%,” said Potulny, who now wears the CCHA Pairwise banner at Notre Dame for two games this weekend.

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