by John Maiers
It seemed so improbable, but, turns out, not impossible. Ask any of the 5,327 fans that jammed the Verizon Wireless Center in downtown Mankato Saturday night. Sports theatre on the biggest stage around.
Minnesota State Mankato and Bowling Green clashed to determine the WCHA Playoff Champion and the privilege of holding high the Jeff Sauer Trophy awarded to the winners. The Mavericks playing host as regular season champs and home-ice titans, with the red-hot Falcons playing team-of-prey, confident, owning a two-game series sweep of the Mavericks in mid-December in Bowling Green, Ohio. It took 61 minutes and 37 seconds for the improbable to become possible. When the curtains closed, MSU had ground out a 3-2 win.
The intense back and forth and typical playoff grind yielded no goals and only a dozen shots on goal for the Mavericks through two periods. Meanwhile, Frederic Letourneau lit the lamp for the Falcons at 14:56 of the first period. Then, early in the third period, at 1:28, and just 8 seconds into a five-minute major penalty on the Mavericks’ Edwin Hookenson, Falcons’ defenseman, Alec Rauhauser scooped up a loose puck off a faceoff and whipped a low shot past MSU goalie, Dryden McKay; 2-0 Bowling Green. But that was it. The Mavericks killed off the rest of the penalty, a pivotal – and necessary – point in the game.
The third period found the Mavericks finding their stride and yet their hard work hadn’t produced a payoff. MSU forward Jake Jaremko changed that at 18:16 of that final frame. With MSU goaltender, McKay on the bench, Jaremko took a feed from defenseman Riese Zmolek and wristed a high shot over the shoulder of BG netminder, Ryan Bednard. Game on.
And the crowd went crazy.
Moments later, with McKay back on the bench, the Mavericks were deep in the Falcons’ defensive zone and 48 seconds after their first goal, at 19:04, defenseman Connor Mackey tied it. Taking a feed cross-ice from defensive partner Jack McNeely, Mackey slapped a low drive that found its way through traffic and into the net. Tie game.
And the building shook.
The finals seconds ticked off, Zambonis took laps and the teams rested. Unlike the regular season, this game would be not be decided by five-minute overtime or a shoot out but with a goal – a winner-take-all, hoist-a-trophy, hang-a-banner game-winner. It didn’t take long.
The Falcons were first to apply pressure. McKay turned away a Falcons shot and the Mavericks turned around and down the ice. Centerman Josh French and forwards Shane McMahan and Nick Rivera pressured the Falcons in the corner to Bednard’s right. McMahan sent a shot along the goal line that deflected off French to Rivera, who had snuck from behind the net to position himself in the slot. At 1:37 of overtime, Rivera closed the show when he banged the puck past Bednard. A gold rush followed as teammates lept over the boards and raced to mob Rivera. The Mavericks were WCHA Playoff Champions, adding The Jeff to their regular season prize, The McNaughton Cup.
And, yeah, the crowd went crazy.
The Mavericks move on to the NCAA East Regional in Providence, RI as the region’s number one seed and number three seed overall. The Mavericks play home town Providence at noon on Saturday. ESPN News will telecast. All the action can be heard on AM 1230, The Fan Mankato with Mike Sullivan providing the play by play. Bowling Green earned a trip into the tournament as well and plays the University of Minnesota Duluth in Allentown, PA at 3:00 Saturday.