Mavericks to battle St. Thomas in first round of CCHA playoffs

The Minnesota State men’s hockey team is set to begin the Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament this weekend on home ice at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato.

After clinching the first seed in the tournament two series prior in their 5-1 regulation win over Bemidji State, the Mavericks will take on eighth seeded St. Thomas. The Tommies were the newest addition to the CCHA this year, after they were removed from their previous NCAA Division III conference for a fresh start in NCAA Division I hockey’s CCHA. 

It has been a rough jump for the Tommies as they have managed to win just three games of their 34 scheduled so far this season. St. Thomas enters the best of three series with an overall record of 3-30-1 while claiming a 3-22-1 record in the CCHA. 

The Mavs appear on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to team success, with Minnesota State holding the best record in all of college hockey. MSU is 31-5-0 overall this season while claiming the regular season CCHA title with a 23-3-0 record in conference play. 

The Mavericks are undoubtedly one of the best teams in the nation, as they rank first in wins at 31, goals scored at 146, scoring margin of 2.81, and face-off percentage of 58.1%. 

The Mavs will bring an 11 game win streak into the series as well as a season sweep over the Tommies when the two have matched up. In the four previous games between the two squads, MSU has earned a 26-2 goals for goals against average against UST.

Junior center Nathan Smith and senior winger Julian Napravnik have been driving forces in Minnesota State’s offensive success this season. Smith and Napravnik both have scored 17 goals and collected 27 assists this season, which ties them at second in the nation in scoring at 44 only behind Denver’s Bobby Brink. 

Smith has done so while also missing games due to injury earlier in the season as well as his three-week stint in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. 

Junior center Brendan Furry has also collected 27 assists on the season, which is tied for third in the nation alongside Smith and Napravnik. Junior winger Ryan Sandelin also makes a splash in the national scoring lists with his team-leading 19 goals. Sandelin’s goal mark slots him in sixth in the nation. 

In net the Mavericks rely on senior netminder Dryden McKay who remains one of the best goaltenders to compete in NCAA Division I hockey. McKay leads the country in wins this season at 31 while collecting a second-tying nine shutouts. 

McKay’s 1.26 goals against average is second in the nation and his .934 save percentage is fourth. 

On the Tommies side of the ice they are led by graduate student forward Christiano Versich. Versich in the only St. Thomas player to surpass the 15 point mark this season, doing so behind five goals and ten assists. 

The Tommies have a tie for the team-lead in goals this season, which is held by junior and freshman forwards Luke Manning and Kyler Grundy at seven. 

Graduate student Peter Thome has been the main goaltender for St. Thomas this season, allowing an average of 4.33 goals while averaging an .878 save percentage in 25 starts. 

UST is led by their head coach Rico Blasi. Blasi has decades of experience coaching college hockey, where he most recent ended his 20-year era as Miami Ohio’s head coach.

Blasi led Miami to ten NCAA tournament appearances as well as one championship birth and another appearance in the Frozen Four. 

Game one of the best of three series is set for Mar. 4 at 7:07 p.m. in Mankato. The second game is set to be played the following evening at 6:07 p.m.

If necessary the final game will be played on Mar. 6 at 5:07 p.m., once again, at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato.  

If the Mavericks win the series, they will compete against the lowest remaining seed in the tournament at home the following weekend. 

Header Photo: Junior center Nathan Smith (8) is tied for the team lead in scoring at 44 with teammate Julian Napravnik. Smith and Napravnik each have 17 goals and 27 assists on the season which is tied for second in all of Division I hockey. (David Faulkner/SPX Sports)

Write to Kole Buelow at kole.buelow@mnsu.edu.

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