Mavericks pull off wild win for WCHA playoff title

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Mankato Free Press reports:

MANKATO — For 58 minutes Saturday night, the fourth-largest crowd in Minnesota State hockey history had little to cheer about.

Some people, it appeared, even headed toward the exits.

But then the Mavericks pulled off a miracle, bringing the sold-out Verizon Center decibels to an eardrum-splitting level as they won the Jeff Sauer Trophy as the WCHA’s playoff champion with an unlikely 3-2 overtime victory over Bowling Green.

Nick Rivera scored the game-winning goal at 1:37 of overtime, after the Mavericks erased a 2-0 lead and nearly three full periods of frustration in the final two minutes of regulation.

“As the game was going, I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to have something in a positive way to get this crowd into the game,'” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said.

Bowling Green, looking for its first WCHA championship of any kind since joining the league in 2013, was on its way to an upset victory before Minnesota State went into desperation mode, pulling goalie Dryden McKay with 3:09 remaining.

Jake Jaremko and Connor Makey scored goals 48 seconds apart in the final 1:44 of the third period, and the crowd of 5,327 exploded.

“It was a little dead at first,” Rivera said. “But they had faith in us and stuck with us. … The atmosphere was incredible.”

Jaremko fired in MSU’s first goal with 1:44 to play, and Mackey, a defenseman blasted in a shot from the point to tie it with 55.9 seconds to go.

“I haven’t been a part of something like that,” Hastings said.

The Mavericks outshot the Falcons 26-19 but had just 11 shots through two periods against a stifling defense.

The Falcons outshot the Mavericks 10-5 in the first period and took a 1-0 lead at 14:56 when Frederic Letourneau sniped a shot from the right circle over McKay.

Falcons goalie Ryan Bednard made tough saves throughout the game, including a glove stop on a wide-open Julian Napravnik during a second-period power play, and it just didn’t seem like MSU’s night.

The game remained 1-0 until early in the third when Minnesota State was called for its first penalty of the game. It was a costly one, as defenseman Edwin Hookenson received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for checking from behind.

Falcons’ standout defenseman Alec Rauhauser quickly scored with the man advantage, and it was a 2-0 game at 1:28.

But that was the only goal MSU gave up on the major.

“I think that’s the turning point in the game,” Hastings said. “They don’t get it to 3.”

Bednard made a few more impressive saves in the third period, holding off the Mavericks for an almost-sure championship — until the final two minutes.

“We had the momentum, for sure,” Mackey said. “We definitely had more confidence going into overtime. We stayed the course.”

In overtime, Shane McMahan did some good work in the corner and took a shot. The puck deflected off teammate Josh French and ended up on Rivera’s stick in front of an open net.

“I just got lucky and saw an open shot,” Rivera said. “When you see a puck, and you see an opportunity, a Grade A in front of the net in the slot area, you want to try to get it up as much as you can.”

He did, and the surprise celebration was on.

“Momentum’s tough to get,” Hastings said. “You want to hold onto it. The crowd got into it, and it was a pretty special night for us.”

Up next for the Mavericks (32-7-2) will be the NCAA tournament. The bracket will be announced at 6 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. Minnesota State will host a Selection Show watch party for the public at 5 p.m. at Pub 500.

Bowling Green (25-10-2) also made the tournament field, based on its Pairwise ranking. The Falcons will be going to the NCAAs for the first time since 1990.

“I don’t feel any sense of accomplishment as we sit here right now,” Bergeron said. “I feel like I let these boys down a little bit.”

The championship was the third WCHA playoff title for the Mavericks. They also won in 2014 and 2015.

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