Eyeing a repeat

Senior Cam McGeough vividly remembers the last time the Minot State men’s club hockey team traveled to Delaware. It’s not a happy memory.

It was 2011 when the Beavers last made the 26-hour bus ride to Fred Rust Arena in Newark, Del., for the National Tournament. MSU – a sixth seed that year – had its title hopes dashed in the opening round, losing to 11th-seeded Oakland.

Three years later, MSU heads back to Delaware looking to defends its first championship. The ninth-seeded Beavers play the tournament host, No. 8 seed Delaware, on Saturday at 6 p.m. CST in the second round.

“The first game of nationals is always a tough one,” McGeough said. “It’s nerve-racking. We’re driving 26 hours. It’s going to be on our minds for the 26 hours on the bus. We’ve been there before. We drove to Delaware and we lost our first game. We drove 26 hours there and drove 26 hours back and I still have the feeling in my stomach and it burns me. That’s not going to happen this year.”

The Beavers (23-6-4) enter the tournament winners of five straight after an up-and-down season. Freshman forward Jeremy Johnson leads the team in scoring with 51 points (30 goals, 21 assists). Junior forward Michael Jordan has a team-high 32 assists and is second in scoring with 46 points.

The Blue Hens roster boasts the second-highest scorer in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. In 37 games this season, senior forward Mark Zeszut tallied 69 points (40 g, 29 a). Only Arizona State’s Kale Dolinksi had more (71).

While the rest of Delaware’s roster doesn’t score at the pace of Zeszut, MSU coach Wade Regier said they make up for it in effort.

“They are one of the hardest-working teams in the nation,” Regier said. “They have one guy who’s a big threat to score, but the remaining guys are just hard-working guys. They’re the type of guys that control the puck, are very well-disciplined and play a puck-possession style of game.”

Regier said it will be a near-capacity crowd to see the hometown Blue Hens play the Beavers. Delaware (23-10-3) finished 8-5 at home during the regular season. With the home-ice advantage, the Blue Hens have a noticeable edge.

“With their crowd, we do not want them at all involved,” Regier said. “If Delaware comes in and scores in the first five minutes, it’s going to put an interesting take on the game. Another thing is it’s an Olympic-sized ice. They’re used to practicing on it.”

This year – perhaps more than in the past – the field is wide open with seeding being determined by computer rankings for the first time. Arizona State has been the unquestioned No. 1 seed the entire season, but the rest of the field is a toss-up.

“There’s 20 good teams coming into the tournament,” MSU senior goaltender Wyatt Waselenchuk said. “Anyone could come away with it. Hopefully, we can be the hardest-working team. Just get a few bounces here and there and we’ll just take it one game at a time.”

Said McGeough: “For us, I think we just have to worry about ourselves. Come nationals, any team can win. That’s the thing I’ve learned the four years I’ve been here. I think the one thing that’s going to make us win is if we outplay the other team. There’s going to be a lot of skilled teams out there. What’s going to win this tournament is if we go out and beat the guy next to you every single shift for 60 minutes.”

If the Beavers get past Delaware, it will set up a potential quarterfinal game with top-ranked ASU on Sunday. The Sun Devils defeated MSU 2-1 in November. But Regier and the Beavers aren’t looking ahead.

“We can’t look past Delaware,” Regier said. “If we look past Delaware they’re going to take us to the cleaners, especially with their large home crowd.”

The Beavers finished the regular season 11-6 against the National Tournament field. They didn’t play Delaware and haven’t since October 2012 – a 5-0 victory for the Beavers. But past history doesn’t mean anything in do-or-die situations, which is why MSU is more worried about itself and less about the opposing team.

“Where teams get into trouble is they start to try and make too many adjustments or they overscout a team,” Regier said. “Last year, we just played our style of hockey. We dictated what went on. We forced the puck and were aggressive. We didn’t worry about the other teams.”

Said Waselenchuk: “We have to go in there and not worry about our opponent. We have to work hard and implement the systems we’ve been working on. We need to go out there and play with nothing to lose.”

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.