The Lake Superior State Lakers hockey season came to an end on Friday night, but the team hopes it’s the start of something.
The Lakers, playing in their first NCAA tournament since 1996, dropped a 5-1 decision to the University of Massachusetts Minutemen Friday at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn. in the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship.
The loss ends what was a successful season for the Lakers and, while the loss hurts, the team hopes to use the season as a starting point.
“You can’t take the sting out,” Whitten said. “It hurts. We came in expecting to win a game and win a couple games and move on. That’s pretty heartbreaking. It’s tough to handle, but we’ve had a good season. We’re champions. We restored a lot of pride in the program with what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done. My office overlooks the rink and I see national championship banners and league banners from Rick Comley, Ron Mason, Jeff Jackson, and Frank Anzalone. We’re going to add a banner. That was our goal when we came here. Not just one and it’s not going to be another 25 years before you see us again. We’re going to be back.”
For the Lakers, there were some positives in the loss.
“I liked big stretches of our game,” Whitten said. “Yuki Miura walked in and hit the crossbar on a breakaway. We hit a post on the power play. I felt like we had our chances and weren’t able to take advantage. That experience, that moxy, maybe showed on their behalf. That’s a heck of a hockey team and they deserve to move on.”
UMass lost in the final of the 2019 tournament against the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a handful of players on their current roster were members of that team.
After the teams skated through a scoreless opening period, UMass took the lead thanks to goals by freshman Josh Lopina and senior Carson Gicewicz 1:57 apart midway through the second period to take a 3-1 lead into the final 20 minutes.
“When you chase the game, it’s difficult,” Whitten said. “We’ve been really good for big stretches this season of scoring first.
“It’s hard to chase the game, especially against a team like UMass,” Whitten added. “It’s a challenge and they played really well. They did a really good job of creating turnovers and playing in our zone. That’s tough emotionally on this stage to do that.”
Whitten added that the message after falling behind was that of its ability to battle back in games when trailing this season.
“We’ve come back in a lot of games,” Whitten said. “We thought we could make the push and do it. It was frustrating to come out on the power play (at the start of the) third period and not really get set or get any good looks. That hurt us momentum-wise a little bit.”
UMass coach Greg Carvel felt the game was closer than the score indicated and wasn’t pleased with some aspects of their game.
“We did certain things well and the kids compete hard, and they scored around the net, which was the key in the game,” Carvel said. “We’re not going to win more games at this level and this time of the year playing the way we did tonight.”
Senior Jake Gaudet had a pair of goals for UMass and junior Anthony Del Gaizo also scored for UMass.
Junior goaltender Filip Lindberg made 30 saves for UMass.
Junior forward Ashton Calder had the lone goal for the Lakers while senior goaltender Mareks Mitens made 32 saves.
UMass will face Bemidji State in the East Region final on Saturday.
Bemidji, who got into the tournament by way of an at-large bid, beat Wisconsin 6-3 in the other East Region semi on Friday afternoon.
In other tournament news, the University of Michigan was forced to withdraw from the event earlier in the day Friday after positive COVID tests within the team.
Michigan was the second school in as many days forced to withdraw after Notre Dame suffered a similar fate on Thursday.
Michigan was scheduled to face Minnesota-Duluth in one of two Midwest Region semi-final games.
Minnesota-Duluth earned a berth in the regional final as a result.