It’s been 25 years since a Lake Superior State Lakers hockey team has made an appearance in the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Ice Hockey National Tournament and the team will make its return as Western Collegiate Hockey Association champions.
The Lakers doubled up the Northern Michigan University Wildcats 6-3 Saturday night in Mankato, Minn. to win the WCHA playoff title and earn the league’s automatic bid in the NCAA tournament as a result.
“It’s a big night for our program,” Lakers coach Damon Whitten said.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Whitten added. “I don’t know if it’s totally sunk in. My fist few years (at Lake State) were tough years and we asked these recruits to believe in our vision and what we want to accomplish and get back to hanging banners at Taffy Abel. To see that come to fruition tonight is pretty special.”
An early lead and a big day offensively for junior forward Ashton Calder helped pace the Lakers to the win.
Calder, a Michigan Sault native who was named the most outstanding player of the tournament, finished the night with three goals for the Lakers, including a shorthanded goal in the second period that gave the Lakers a 4-0 lead at the time and held up as the eventual game-winner.
“It’s big,” Whitten said of Calder’s play. “It’s very fitting because (of the number of international players on the team) here we are, our homegrown talent scoring a hattrick to move us on and get us back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in so many years.”
It’s the first league title for the Lakers since the school won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association title in 1994-95 and the first NCAA tournament appearance for the school since 1995-96.
Lake State opened the scoring 80 seconds into the contest as sophomore forward Dustin Manz found himself in close and scored on a rebound after freshman Wildcats goaltender Rico DiMatteo made the initial stop on the play.
DiMatteo turned aside Lakers sophomore Brandon Puricelli on the play.
The Lakers would take a 2-0 lead at 12:02 of the frame as Puricelli went to the net and scored on a feed from Manz on the right wing.
Midway through the second period, Lake State extended the lead to 3-0 as junior defenceman Jacob Nordqvist took a feed from fellow junior Miroslav Mucha and beat DiMatteo through traffic at 10:50.
Lake State would take a 4-0 lead 2:40 later as Calder completed a tap in on a back door pass from junior Pete Veillette.
Northern Michigan took advantage of a late power play in the period as sophomore forward Andre Ghantous deflected a one-timer by fellow sophomore A.J. Vanderbeck past Lakers senior goaltender Mareks Mitens to send the game into the third with the Lakers leading 4-1.
The Wildcats would cut the Lakers lead to 4-2 early in the third as Vanderbeck one-timed a feed from sophomore Alex Frye on a faceoff win 3:05 into the period.
Lake State would restore the three-goal lead as Calder picked up his second of the night with the Lakers shorthanded.
Calder took a feed from Veillette in the corner and beat DiMatteo with a one-timer at 11:04 to make it 5-2 Lakers.
Northern Michigan nearly cut the lead to 5-3 as sophomore defenceman Colby Enns beat Mitens on a rebound but the goal was waved off as the net was dislodged before the puck crossed the goalline.
The Wildcats eventually did cut the lead to 5-3 as junior forward David Keefer grabbed a turnover in the slot and beat Mitens high glove with 4:08 to go in regulation time.
NMU pulled DiMatteo for an extra attacker with 3:09 to go in regulation time and Calder capped off the hattrick with 2:36 to go to make it 6-3.
In addition to Calder’s three-point night, Manz and Puricelli had a goal and an assist each while Veillette assisted on two goals for the Lakers.
“The scoring spread out throughout the lineup is really important this time of year in these types of games,” Whitten said. “That’s certainly by design. That’s how we tried to build this roster and work with our players to know that their roles are critical to our success.”
Mitens made 25 saves.
Vanderbeck had a goal and an assist for the Wildcats while DiMatteo made 24 saves.
“I’m really proud of the group,” NMU coach Grant Potulny said following the loss.
“It was just one of those nights where we just couldn’t get our stick on a puck,” Potulny also said. “It was just a little bit out of our reach, or we were just a second short.”
The Lakers will find out on Sunday night when the NCAA tournament field is completed who their first round opponent will be and what regional bracket they will play in as part of the tournament, which is set to begin on March 26.