Trying to stay on top: Tommies look to remain in first place against Minnesota State

St. Thomas’ Lucas Wahlin battles for the puck along the boards with Minnesota State’s Jordan Steinmetz (center) and Brandon Koch during a game Dec. 9, 2023 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

By Ryan Stieg 

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — There’s a little more than a month left in the regular season and things are heating up in the CCHA standings.  

The St. Thomas men’s hockey team is battling injuries and fighting through pain right now, but on the positive side, the Tommies (12-11-1, 10-6 CCHA) sit atop the league along with rival Minnesota State at 30 points apiece. Appropriately, those two teams will take on each other this weekend.

Mankato has been slowly climbing the standings the past few weeks and joined the Tommies in first place last weekend after a win and tie against Northern Michigan. The Mavericks may appear on paper to have taken a step back this year compared to the past few seasons, but UST head coach Rico Blasi knows that Mankato is far better than what its record (13-9-4, 9-5-2) may indicate.  

“There’s still the defending champion, so you’re going to have to go through them, whether it’s us or anybody else,” he said Monday. “They’ve got arguably the best line in our conference in terms of production in (Sam) Morton and (Lucas) Sowder and (Mason) Wheeler is a tough-nosed defensemen. You better have your head up if you’re going against him. And they have talent up and down their lineup. Listen, (Mavericks head coach) Luke Strand’s been around a long time. He’s a good coach and he knows how to get the most out of his players. We had a really inspired battle back in December and I’m thinking that’s going to be the same this weekend.” 

St. Thomas’ Lucas Wahlin fires a shot on net during a game against Minnesota State on Dec. 9, 2023, in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

The Tommies, on the other hand, haven’t played in two weeks after their exhibition game against USNTDP Under-18 team was canceled last week. However, that time off might’ve been beneficial heading into this weekend as UST has some defensemen playing forward to fill in some gaps in the lineup.  

When asked if his team was paying attention to the standings and the race for the MacNaughton Cup, Blasi said the players are aware of their situation, but that they’re not focusing on that.  

“It’s not something we actually really talk about,” he said. “Part of our culture is always to focus on the process, but yes, of course, everybody knows where the standings are. And it’s a credit to the guys in the locker room for believing in each other and having faith in each other and faith in something bigger than ourselves, and the love that we have for each other in the locker room. I think that really is an important piece of what we do because when you have those two things, when you have faith and love, you have an ability to come to the arena every day and try to get better and everybody is in the same boat and on the same page. So, to me, that’s what we look at. Obviously, some of the results have been there for us to be in this spot and now, we’ve just got to continue to focus on what we do. We’ve got a couple more practices before we have a big game on Friday and that’s what we’re going to focus on.” 

The Tommies celebrate a goal during a game against Northern Michigan in early November of 2023 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

At the start of the season, few people thought that UST would be anywhere near first place during its third year in Division I. Yet, here the Tommies are, which is a sign that Blasi’s process is working.  

“That’s what you want to be,” he said. “You want to be in meaningful games in February and early March. That means you’re playing for something. As I said at the beginning of the year, pressure is a privilege and you’ve got to continue to get your team and your program into that spot so that you can learn how to play in those situations. Learn how it feels during practice week. Learn how it feels when you’re in a hostile environment on the road and you’re playing for something. Those are all growing pains and a maturity that your program needs to go through in order to be in those conversations like the NCAA (Tournament).

“We’ve got some steps we need to go through still and the first year that we had our program, we had a lot of Division III guys. That was a necessary step. We had a plan in place. That wasn’t the year we were focused on in any kind of outcomes. We were focused on building something behind the scenes that nobody really got a chance to see other than the people involved in the program. Last year, we made a good step on the ice with some really good freshmen that are now sophomores and I think we’ve made a step again this year. Everything is trending the way we need it to trend, but you still have to go through those situations in order for you to understand what you need to do moving forward.” 

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. Friday in Mendota Heights and 6 p.m. Saturday in Mankato.  

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