Competitive edge lifts Leitner to new heights
Matt Leitner’s true impact on Minnesota State University’s hockey program isn’t just measured in points.
The senior center from Los Alamitos again leads the Mavericks in scoring – something he accomplished in each his first three seasons, becoming the first player in the school’s Division I history to do that.
But Mankato coach Mike Hastings said the former California Wave player has brought much more to a program that’s making itself at home near the top of the national polls this season.
“He’s providing leadership on the ice, as far as example-setting,” Hastings said. “There are different ways to impact a game, whether on the penalty kill, the power play.
“Matt has a gift to make others better. He had it prior to his arrival here, but it’s progressed as he’s matured as a young man.”
That growth has corresponded with the Mavericks, who are better – a lot better – this season.
Ranked No. 3 in the nation in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine College Poll as of mid-February, they spent the first three weeks of January in the No. 1 spot while in the midst of a run of 15 wins in 18 games. They had just one regulation loss and one overtime loss from Nov. 1 through the end of January.
“We have the mindset we believe we can win every game,” Leitner said. “We have good talent, and our core has been together a few years, and that’s translating well to the ice.”
The Mavericks have battled Michigan Tech University for the WCHA lead all season and are poised to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season and fourth time ever.
The next step is winning at least one round.
“In college hockey, teams with rosters heavy on juniors and seniors tend to do well,” Hastings said. “Matt’s one of those guys who has the experience that allows him to be successful at the most important times.”
Talent and experience help, but Leitner’s hockey path has been paved with hard work.
“Matt has worked hard to get in elite shape,” Hastings said. “He’s on our first power play, our top line, he kills penalties for us. He probably plays the most minutes of any forward on our team.
“I think one of his greatest gifts, though, is his competitiveness. Playing (the University of) Minnesota, in front of 14,000 (fans at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center), he had one of his best nights (a 4-2 win on Jan. 23; Leitner registered a pair of assists).”
Finding the back of the net – or helping teammates do so – is nothing new for Leitner. He has college seasons of 29, 47 and 45 points and sat at 29 entering February. He led the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League in scoring with 66 points in 54 games in 2009-10.
But his game has become more well rounded. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Leitner wins about 59 percent of his faceoffs, blocks shots and is well into positive plus-minus territory, and he’s responsible – just one minor penalty through 27 games.
“He’s done a good job focusing on the defensive aspects,” Hastings said. “When I got here (in 2012), he was a minus player, now he’s plus and he’s still scoring.”
The communications major knew what his strengths were – and weren’t.
“One thing I had to do was improve my size and strength be able to take the physicality of college hockey,” he said. “I also worked on my skating and play at both ends of the ice.”
Life lessons started early, Leitner said, first from his parents, Rick and Allison, and then Wave coach Mike Lewis.
“Mike is a really big influence, and I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Leitner said. “He taught hockey as a way to grow up.
“He was hard on me, but we have the type of relationship where he could do that; he’d tell us, ‘Not everything is going to go your way.’
“He was genuinely interested in making us better as people.”
– Chris Bayee