Head coach Erik Largen was impressed with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ energy this week, as the Nanooks returned to a hockey rink for the first time in nearly a month.
“Practices have been good and I think the energy level has been really high,” Largen said by phone during a bus trip Wednesday from Minneapolis to Mankato, Minnesota, where the Nanooks play this weekend against the Minnesota State Mavericks, the first-place team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Nanooks’ energy could be helpful in Mankato’s Verizon Arena, where today’s game is scheduled for 4:07 p.m. AKST and Saturday’s contest is set for 3:07 p.m. AKST.
The Nanooks, 10-10-0 overall and 8-6-0-0 WCHA for 24 points and third place in the standings, last played Dec. 6 and 7 in a conference series in Bemidji, Minnesota. UAF split the pre-Christmas break series against the Beavers, gaining a 5-3 victory on the second night in the Sanford Arena after losing 3-1 there in the opener.
“I think they’re ready to go,” Largen said of the Nanooks. “We’ve played 20 straight games for 10 weekends in a row.
“Toward the end (of the first half of the season),you could see our guys were getting worn down by the travel and the schedule. But they got to go home for a few weeks and spend time with family and friends.
“They came back with an energy and excitement, and it carried over into their practices. It will be exciting to see where the group will be at this weekend.”
The Nanooks lead the all-time series against the Mavericks at 19-12-1, but the Mavericks have won six of the last seven games between the teams.
Minnesota State, besides being atop the WCHA at 16-3-1 overall and 10-2-0-0 for 30 points, leads NCAA Division I for most overall wins this season and for power-play percentage (.299 from 23 conversions in 77 opportunities).
The Mavericks also are ranked third each in the U.S. College Hockey Online (uscho.com) and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. The Nanooks received seven votes in this week’s uscho.com poll.
Minnesota State also is coming off a third-place finish Saturday in the Mariucci Classic at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Mike Hastings also is vying for his 200th victory since becoming Minnesota State’s head coach in 2012-13. Hastings is 199-83-22 with the Mavericks.
“They’re deep in all positions,” Largen said of the Mavericks. “It’s start with their goaltender, Dryden McKay. They have multiple players over 10 points (in scoring) and guys that can produce from all four (forward) lines.”
McKay leads Division I for saves percentage (.947) and shutouts (five). Nanooks senior Anton Martinsson ranks 21st nationally for saves percentage at .922.
“It’s a tough task for us,” Largen said of this weekend’s series, “but it’s good to get tested against the best team in the conference.”
The test also comes as the Nanooks are entering the second half of the season.
“It will good to see where we’re at and it will be a good measuring stick for us,” Largen said. “It will be good to see where we need to improve.
“We’ve matched up well against them and I know our guys are going to work hard. It should be a real competitive series.”
After the Minnesota State series, UAF hosts the Lake Superior State Lakers, of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in a WCHA series Jan. 10 and 11. Each game begins at 7:07 p.m. at the Carlson Center.
A watch party for the second game of the Minnesota State series is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. Saturday downstairs in Fenders Restaurant, 636 28th Ave.
Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.