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Three things to watch about Minnesota State-Mankato

Published: February 27, 2013, 11:10 pm, by Joe Paisley

Mankato picNo. 9 Minnesota State-Mankato is riding a wave of positive energy from the turnaround sparked by new coach Mike Hastings, who took a struggling program, and with mostly the same players, has them believing in themselves and right in the hunt for home WCHA playoff ice.

Their turnaround reminds me a lot of Michigan Tech last season, but this team is arguably deeper and more dangerous. Here are three things to watch about the Mavs this weekend:

Strong goaltending

One new player who has made a big difference for the purple Mavs is freshman goalie Stephon Williams (17-7-2) who has a WCHA-best 1.77 goals against average, a .932 saves percentage and four shutouts. He is an emotional leader, celebrating when Mankato scores, and the team feeds off that, said CC assistant Joe Bonnett.

Skilled and deep group of forwards, especially on power play

Senior Eriah Hayes (18g, 12a) is a potent, physical force at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds who is especially tough on the power play where he roams the ice instead of holding down on particular spot, Bonnett said. His 11 power-play goals ties him for the Division I lead. That means the CC penalty killers must keep track of him. Sophomore Matt Leitner (team-high 36 points, 12g, 24a) has 18 assists with the man advantage.

Smooth-skating team with good forecheck that plays sound defense in neutral zone

The Mavs will have little trouble adjusting to the Olympic-size ice sheet at World Arena. The team moves well and has a single-forward forecheck that proves challenging, especially with a team adept at forcing turnovers in the neutral zone. They use those for good scoring chances in quick transition.

Minnesota State (20-9-3, 14-9-1 WCHA) has four games to win two games and surpass the program’s best wins total (21) of the Division I era. The Mavs promise to be as tough an opponent as WCHA-leading St. Cloud State.