Chargers prepare for third-ranked Minnesota State

Minnesota State (11-2-1, 8-0-0 WCHA) at UAH (2-7-1, 2-2-0 WCHA)
WHERE: Von Braun Center, Huntsville, Ala. (COVID-19 policies)
WHEN: Thursday, 7:07 p.m.; Friday, 7:07 p.m. (subscription)
LISTEN: Penalty Box Radio

Minnesota State’s hockey program has been a force in the WCHA, winning the MacNaughton Cup as regular-season champions five of the last six years. The Mavericks are rolling again this season, holding a three-game lead atop the league standings and a No. 3 national ranking in the polls.

MSU has been just about everything the UAH hockey program aspires to be in its rebuild. For now, however, the Mavericks has been the bane of the Chargers’ existence: UAH is winless in the last 34 meetings (0-30-4), last claiming victory in 2002.

So the freshman-heavy Chargers will be decided underdogs yet again, but go for the upset they will when they host the Mavericks at the Von Braun Center on Thursday and Friday nights.

“It’s going to be an extreme challenge,” UAH head coach Lance West said. “People who’ll want to watch the game are going to get to come watch one of the best teams in the country and some of the best players out there. It’s an exciting challenge for our guys. It’s one of the things that when you decide to come play in Division I, you’re excited for a challenge against a team like that. That’s the way we’ve approached it all week.

“You don’t have to talk about it a lot, but what you talk about is the opportunity and the challenge. You want guys to face it head on. You can’t be beat mentally before you go into the game.”

Most hockey upsets start with an outstanding goaltending performance, and UAH will look again to David Fessenden to fill that need. Fessenden has kept the Chargers in most games this season with his .931 save percentage. He had 36 saves in the opener against Michigan Tech last Friday.

“One of the big factors (for Fessenden) has been (assistant coach) Carmine Guerriero,” West said. “He’s been able to really work with him on an individual basis, on skills, composure, knowing when David is too active, showing him things that maybe a guy who played forward like me just doesn’t see. He’s been really good for David and David has responded well and calm. And when he’s calm, he’s big, athletic, and can make saves.”

Goaltending might be the relatively easy part. The Chargers will still have to find a way to score on Dryden McKay, who has been a fortress against just about everyone. The junior has more shutouts (7) than not (5) in 12 starts this season, leading Division I in goals against average (0.84) and save percentage (.959). McKay held the WCHA’s leading offense, Bowling Green, to just one goal in two games last week.

UAH must do better than in last weekend’s series against Michigan Tech, when the Chargers played in a tight game the first two periods but were outplayed in the third each night.

“Friday, we just got beat,” West said. “I still didn’t think we played the type of game we need to play. We’d been off for a month and I just don’t think I got them prepared well enough for in that week for the pace they were going to see, which we’ve tried to adjust this week.

“Saturday, we played a much better game, but again in the third period they turned it up a notch, we made a mistake, and they’re good enough to capitalize. Come third period, you know you have to be better. You know in tight games in college hockey, even with us this year, you have to be the team that can’t take a break.”

Tyrone Bronte, who has nine points in 10 games, Bauer Neudecker, who got a goal and an assist last week, and Tyr Thompson, who is tied with Bronte and Neudecker with three goals this season, have been the leaders of the Charger offense.

The Mavericks are led by junior Julian Napravnik and sophomore Cade Borchardt, both with six goals and 16 points. Reggie Lutz (seven goals) and Dallas Gerads (five) lead a experienced group with eight seniors in the regular lineup. Winnipeg Jets prospect Nathan Smith has 13 assists.

The Chargers will need to be up for the challenge, not only against Mavericks but the road ahead.

Next week, the Chargers will play four games in five days in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They will make up a series with Northern Michigan on Tuesday and Wednesday before heading to Lake Superior State on Friday and Saturday.

“There wasn’t a lot of people expecting a lot from us, but we expect a lot from ourselves, and that’s been the message from day one,” West said. “We’ve got to get our practice habits better so we’re more consistent, but come game time these guys have laid it on the line. I’m proud of them as I am excited about anything, because they have bought in.”

This week in the WCHA: All times Central.

Thursday, February 11
#3 Minnesota State at UAH, 7:07 p.m.

Friday, February 12
#3 Minnesota State at UAH, 7:07 p.m.
Lake Superior State at #12 Bowling Green, 6:07 p.m.
Northern Michigan at #18 Bemidji State, 7:07 p.m.
Ferris State at Michigan Tech, 6:07 p.m.*

Saturday, February 13
Lake Superior State at #12 Bowling Green, 6:07 p.m.
Northern Michigan at #18 Bemidji State, 6:07 p.m.
Ferris State at Michigan Tech, 5:07 p.m.*

Tuesday, February 16
UAH at Northern Michigan, 3:37 p.m.

Wednesday, February 17
UAH at Northern Michigan, 6:07 p.m.

*Non-conference game.