As a freshman last season, UAA defenseman Ben Matthews cracked the lineup nine times in 36 games. This season, he was a healthy scratch in the Seawolves’ first 11 games and in 16 of the first 17.
That entire time, Matthews said, he tried to remain positive and work hard, particularly in the weight room, where he figured improving his strength could only enhance his skating and make him harder to play against.
Matthews’ patience has been rewarded lately, and never more so than Saturday night, when he scored two goals to support Chris Kamal’s 35 saves and spearhead the Seawolves to a series-sweeping 3-1 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato.
Matthews has played in five straight games and delivered three goals and one assist in that span. He is principally a defensive defenseman, charged with leaning on opponents with his 6-foot-2, 213-pound frame. Lately, though, the sophomore has diversified his game with unexpected offense.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ said Kamal, a senior. “I’m so proud of that kid. When he wasn’t in the lineup, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He was busting his ass to get in the lineup.
UAA coach Matt Thomas moved sophomore defenseman Blake Leask to the wing earlier this season and he also likes to dress seven defensemen. All of that, along with Matthews’ improvement, helped him crack the lineup.
“His role (is as) a defensive defenseman, and our guys like that were playing really well early, so there wasn’t really an opportunity to put him in there,’’ Thomas said. “One thing I loved was Benny really committed, when he wasn’t playing, to getting stronger, which has really helped him.
“It’s always nice seeing stories like that.’’
Matthews said he’s having a blast.
“It feels great,’’ he said. “I definitely knew that when I got my opportunity, I wanted to take advantage of it. I just tried to stay positive.
“There were times I got down, but for the most part I stayed patient and positive.’’
UAA’s success this season — the Seawolves are 11-9-2 overall and 7-7-2 in the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association, where they sit in sole possession of fifth place — has been predicated on everyone pulling their weight.
“To be able to win consistently, it was to come with contributions throughout the lineup, and we’ve been getting that,’’ Thomas said.
In Friday’s 2-1 win over the Mavericks, with goal scorer Scott Allen out with an upper-body injury, Thomas put walk-on freshman winger Brad Duwe on a scoring line. He responded with his first college goal.
And remember, Kamal didn’t even get his first start this season until the 18th game. Now, he’s started five straight games and won four of them. He stopped 62 of 64 shots on the weekend, when he was particularly effective at pushing rebounds into the corners or smothering the puck for a whistle. He was also instrumental in helping kill all seven Mavericks power plays Saturday, including a major power play for the final 3 minutes, 28 seconds, when the Mavericks used an extra attacker.
“It’s been fun for me,’’ Kamal said. “These guys are playing such good hockey.’’
After winning Friday despite being outshot 28-10, the Seawolves were outshot 36-16 Saturday.
But senior center Matt Bailey scored on a bar-down wrister from the slot midway through the first period and Matthews scored his first goal of the night later in the period to stake UAA to a 2-0 lead.
Matthews’ first goal came when his initial shot from the right point was blocked. The puck came back to him and he flicked a wrister inside the left post as Mavericks starting goaltender Stephon Williams of Fairbanks was screened by both his defensemen.
“I got a fortunate bounce and it came right back to me,’’ Matthews said. “I saw a little room to the left and I just shot it, and luckily it went where I was aiming.’’
Minnesota State-Mankato (12-10-0, 10-6-0 WCHA for third place) cut its deficit to 2-1 early in the second period when Zach Lehrke took Jean-Paul Lafontaine’s behind-the-back pass and, with his stick between his legs, beat Kamal for a filthy goal.
Yet even as the Seawolves were outshot 13-3 in the second period, they held their lead. Matthews’ goal 94 seconds into the third period gave them some breathing room.
Matthews collected the puck in neutral ice, gained the blue line and beat Williams with a fluttering 45-foot wrister. Knuckleball though it was, the goal was Charmin soft, and Mavericks coach Mike Hastings pulled Williams (12 saves on 15 shots), the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Year who has struggled this season and lost his No. 1 job to freshman Cole Huggins.
The Mavericks enjoyed a 6-on-4 advantage in the last 3:28 after Hayden Trupp received a major penalty for face-masking and Hastings pulled Huggins for an extra attacker.
But the Mavericks only got off three shots on goal in the waning minutes, none of them particularly quality chances, and the Seawolves were able to clear the puck the length of the ice six different times.
Five different Seawolves, including Kamal, authored those clearances — another example of contributions from throughout the lineup.
Bailey’s goal was his career-high 11th, which ties him with Allen for the team lead, and his assist on Matthews’ first goal was his career high-tying 20th point, which leads the team.
UAA improved to 9-2-1 at home and 7-2-1 in WCHA games at Sullivan Arena.
The Seawolves next travel to Alabama-Huntsville for a WCHA series, then return home to entertain Northern Michigan on Jan. 24-25.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
MSM 0 1 0 — 1
UAA 2 0 1 — 3
First Period — 1, UAA, Bailey 11 (Cameron), 10:08; 2, UAA, Matthews 2 (Trupp, Bailey), 16:37. Penalties — Bailey, UAA (tripping), 1:32; Lafontaine, MSM (interference), 1:50; Tatchell, UAA (hooking), 4:06.
Second Period — 3, MSM, Lehrke 4 (Lafontaine), 1:05. Penalties — Bailey, UAA (holding), 2:54; Sevalrud, UAA (roughing), 10:56; Blueger, MSM (roughing), 10:56; Tatchell, UAA (slashing), 13:05.
Third Period — 4, UAA, Matthews 3, 1:34. Penalties — Sevalrud, UAA (cross-checking), 2:34; Nelson, MSM (boarding), 5:56; Coldwell, UAA (slashing), 8:33; Trupp, UAA, major (face-masking), 16:32.
Shots on goal — MSM 10-13-13—36. UAA 9-2-4—16.
Power-play Opportunities — MSM 0 of 7. UAA 0 of 2.
Goalies — MSM, Williams, 4-5-0 (15 shots-12 saves); Huggins, enter 1:34 3rd period (1-1). UAA, Kamal, 4-2-0 (36 shots-35 saves).
A — 2,107 (6,251). T — 2:39.
Referees — Peter Friesema, Butch Mousseaux. Assistant referees — Travis Jackson, Will Moran.