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Lehrke helped Mavs succeed

  Zach Lehrke wasn’t sure what to expect from the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team this season.

     With a new head coach, Lehrke wasn’t sure what his role would be as he entered his junior season for the Mavericks. As it turned out, the transition to head coach Mike Hastings’ system went smoothly as Minnesota State enjoyed one of its best seasons in school history.

     The Mavericks tied for fourth place in the WCHA standings with a 16-11 1 record for 33 points. St. Cloud State (18-9-1 for 37 points) and the University of Minnesota (16-7-5 for 37 points) shared the conference title while the University of North Dakota (14-7-7) was third with 35 points. Wisconsin (13-8-7) and Denver (14-9-5) also tallied 33 points this season.

     Mankato capped off a 24-14-3 season by advancing to the WCHA Final Five for the first time since 2003 and earned a spot in the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time since 2003.

     Lehrke was a key part of that success as the Park Rapids graduate scored eight goals and had 17 assists for 25 points in 41 games. Lehrke excelled down the stretch with seven goals and 15 assists in the final 28 games.

     “It was an adjustment having a new coach. I didn’t know what to expect right away, but it didn’t take too long to adjust,” said Lehrke. “The biggest change from the new coach was expectations from him. The expectations bar was raised from the first day we met as a team. It was a fun year, especially winning a lot of games. Playing in the Final Five and the national tourney was a great experience. Coming into the year, I guess I would have to say I wouldn’t have thought we would be there. All the guys wanted to win and we put a lot of hard work in and that’s how we got to both of those tournaments.”

     Lehrke had an assist in the Mavericks’ 4-1 win over Alabama-Huntsville on Oct. 12 and had an assist in a 3-2 loss and a goal in a 5-3 win over No. 2 Minnesota on Nov. 2-3.

     Against No. 3 Denver on Nov. 9, Lehrke tallied an assist in a 4-3 loss and followed with an assist in a 4-2 win over Wisconsin on Nov. 24.

     That started a seven-game winning streak as Lehrke had a goal and an assist in a 3-0 win over Bemidji State on Nov. 30, an assist in a 3-1 win and a goal in a 3-0 win over Alaska-Anchorage on Dec. 7-8, and an assist in a 6-3 win over No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 14 as Mankato climbed to the No. 20 ranking in the nation. The seven-game winning streak was the first for the Mavericks since the 2007-08 season.

     Lehrke began 2013 with two assists in Mankato’s 4-3 win and an assist in a 4-0 win over Providence on Jan. 4-5. Lehrke followed with an assist in each game against Anchorage as the Mavs settled for a 3-3 tie and a 4-0 victory on Jan. 18-19.

     Against top-rated Minnesota, Lehrke had Mankato’s lone goal in a 4-1 loss on Jan. 26. Lehrke tallied a goal in a 4-2 win over Duluth and a goal and an assist in a 5-1 win over Duluth on Feb. 8-9.

     Mankato climbed to the No. 9 ranking in the nation as Lehrke’s shorthanded goal proved to be the game-winner in a 6-1 victory over Michigan Tech on Feb. 16.

     Lehrke scored a power-play goal in the Mavs’ 7-2 win over Colorado College on March 2.

     The Mavericks received the No. 5 seed for the WCHA playoffs and eliminated Omaha, opening with a 4-3 overtime win, losing 2-1 and prevailing 3-1 in the best-of-three series on March 15-17. Lehrke had an assist in the overtime win and an assist in the deciding game.  Mankato was rated No. 10 and Omaha was rated No. 20 in the national poll after the regular season.

     Mankato had its quest to win the WCHA title end with a 7-2 loss to No. 14 Wisconsin on March 21. However, Mankato received an invitation to the NCAA Division I national tournament for only the second time in school history. The Mavericks’ season came to an end with a 4-0 loss to No. 5 Miami (Ohio) in the semifinals of the Midwest Regional on March 30. That was the first time Mankato was shut out all season.

     “I thought my junior season went OK. I feel like my play on the ice was kind of a roller coaster. I thought I played very good in stretches of the season and not so good in other stretches. In this league you have to bring it every night and I didn’t feel like I did that this season. Although I did think I played good down the stretch and into the playoffs,” said Lehrke. “I don’t think my role on the team changed too much from last year. The coaches wanted me to produce offense and be a good defensive player. I played in every situation this year, so I was getting a lot of playing time.”

     Lehrke’s role should once again increase next season. As a freshman, Lehrke had two goals and four assists in 30 games. As a sophomore, Lehrke tied for first on the team with 13 goals and added 10 assists for 23 points, which ranked fourth on the team. The junior forward again tied for fourth place on the team with 25 points. Lehrke ended the season with 86 shots on goal.

     In addition to excelling on the ice, Lehrke excelled in the classroom by earning WCHA All-Academic honors.

     The Mavericks only graduate five players, including forward Eriah Hayes (who was second on the team in scoring with 19 goals and 15 assists for 34 points). However, Mankato returns plenty of offense with Lehrke, Matt Leitner (16 goals, 27 assists), JP Lafontaine (9 goals, 23 assists) and Zach Palmquist (6 goals, 18 assists).

     “It wasn’t a season that I wanted personally. I felt like I could have played better and produced more. With Eriah graduating, that is 20 goals that we need to fill. I look to be one of the players to score a lot of goals and make a lot of stuff happen offensively,” said Lehrke. “While getting to both tournaments was really fun and a great experience, unfortunately we didn’t win our last game of the season and that was our goal. So for next year, I believe that this team should be very hungry to get back there. We believe we have some unfinished business to get accomplished, but that will not be easy. I am excited to get going this summer and work hard, get stronger and work on things I need to improve on. I am very excited to get next season started.”