Less than a week after winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title and earning the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, the Lake Superior State Lakers will be back in action on Friday and they’re ready to go.
With a whirlwind few days behind them following winning the league title that included a travel day to get to their regional event, the Lakers are still soaking in the title win over Northern Michigan from Saturday night.
“I’m not sure it’s fully sunk in,” Lakers coach Damon Whitten said of the WCHA title. “We’ve been so busy with our travel and competing for the league title, we haven’t had a ton of time (to reflect).”
Whitten said he’s received a lot of support following the title win.
“That part’s been really touching, just to hear from whether it’s hockey alum or long-time supporters or general alum and community members and just the joy that it’s brought them,” Whitten said. “It’s a program that’s been spoiled in regards because of our history and success, which is awesome, but it’s been a long time. Just to hear some relief and some joy and bringing back memories to our hockey alum who have won championships, that part has been really awesome to be a part of it. For our players, they maybe haven’t heard as much of that, but we’ve shared some of those stories. The guys they play with, they’ll remember this championship for the rest of their lives. It’s a very unique thing to win a championship at this level. They’re going to get it maybe more when they’re my age and they’re older. Right now, they’re just enjoying the moment.”
Traveling back to the Michigan Sault from Minnesota State following the WCHA title, Whitten said the team expected some sort of welcome upon their return to Taffy Abel Arena, but it exceeded their expectations.
“It was unbelievable,” Whitten said of the welcoming the team received upon it’s return to the Michigan Sault following the win over Northern Michigan in the WCHA championship. “We started to hear that there would be a little bit of a welcoming back party and thought it would be a few people out there. We got the state troopers and the sheriff escort into town. There were a lot of fans and we went and rang the bell. It was kind of like ‘Holy smokes, this program is so important to so many.’ We’re lucky to be stewards of it. It was a really overwhelming moment.”
The Lakers are set to open the NCAA tournament on Friday in the East Regional against the University of Massachusetts in Bridgeport, Conn.
For Whitten, the approach to the game won’t be any different than what they’re used to.
“When you get here, you want to be who you are,” Whitten said. “We’re not going to change what’s made us successful and who we are. We have to go in and impose our will on the game and play to our strengths and certainly make some adjustments to what they (UMass) do well and be prepared for that. One big thing that I’ve talked about all year long is the leadership in the locker room. I’ve talked a lot about our seniors and how well they’ve played.”
“We’re an experienced group and we want to rely on that,” Whitten added. “You can’t get too high; you can’t get too low. Maybe it’s during the pre-game skate, not the start you want (in the game) or a great start. You have to weather those all of those little things. Everything is heightened when you’re one of 16 teams in the NCAA tournament. We’ll really look to our seniors in our locker room and make sure that the guys are ready to play and ready to weather anything that comes out of it.”
The Lakers head into the tournament having won six straight games and 13 of their last 16 games. The team has gone 13-2-1 (win-loss-overtime loss) in that stretch.
The stretch included playing seven games in a 14-day stretch to end the month of February that saw the team go 6-1.
The stretch over the final two months of the season also saw the team play without some veterans at times including senior goaltender Mareks Mitens, senior defenceman Lukas Kaelble, and sophomore forward Louis Boudon.
All three missed stints during the run.
In that, Whitten spoke of the solid play by the team in the WCHA tournament last weekend and took it one step further.
“I would even go back more than a couple games and the way we finished the year,” Whitten said. “We knew we were a good team early on. It was a weird start with COVID pauses and changing opponents. I feel like we probably played down some games. We were the favourites and got ranked and didn’t maybe feel like we had our best games. We had to play some games without some of our best players. Mits was out; Kaelble was out; Boudon was out. Shortly after we got into the stretch of 10 games in 22 nights with a lot on the road, you really saw our team come together and get serious about who we were and impose our will. Our stretch run, I thought we really showed what we’re all about.”
“We’ve been really good since (the beginning of) February on with a lot of travel, a lot of ranked opponents,” Whitten added. “We’ve got a room that believes in itself, great leadership in the locker room. Now it’s our turn to just keep it going.”
Following the long stretch of games late in the season, a rested group at this point is important heading into the tournament.
“We’re rested too, which is nice,” Whitten said. “We couldn’t say that two weeks ago. We’re rested. We’re healthy. The support staff has done a great job with that. We respect our opponents, so there’s not a line that we’re getting too where we think we’re unbeatable or arrogant or anything like that, but there is some confidence. We’ve faced some adversity. We’re had to come back in games, we’ve had to play on the road against quality opponents. We’ve kind of had to look at this nationally where teams that we’ve beaten have been ranked ahead of us so there’s a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and that’s worked well. We know we’ve had to prove some people wrong. We’ve had to control our own destiny and work our way into the tournament, and we did it. We want to use that same mindset. I don’t think too many people have picked us to beat UMass and that’s okay. We just have to do it in our own locker room and go out and accomplish it.”
Both coaches admitted familiarity with their opponent is limited.
“It’s obviously been a unique year with very little non-conference play (so) you don’t know teams as well as you typically might,” Whitten said. “And especially them being an east coast team, we don’t see those teams often. We don’t recruit the players that are the eastern born kids as often either so we don’t know them as much as we might know more of a midwest or western-based team. We’ve certainly had a chance to get through a lot of video now and catch up.
“They’re a very good team,” Whitten added. “Anybody this time of year that’s still around is a tremendous team. Greg Carle has done a tremendous job. They’re very structured in the way they play. They’ve got good pace, a very mobile D corps. They’ve got great goaltending. There are no weaknesses in that lineup. That makes it a chance for a great hockey game.”
The UMass roster features four players from Michigan though coach Greg Carvel’s familiarity with the Lakers is limited.
Asked how familiar he was with the Lakers roster, Carvel said he wasn’t.
“I have two very good recruiters, so I don’t get in their way,” Carvel said in media availability following practice on Thursday courtesy of the NCAA. “I don’t try to screw things up for them. I just wait until they tell me who I should talk to and try to sell those kids. We’ve had a lot of luck with Michigan kids. We’ve got way more Michigan kids than we have Massachusetts kids.”
“I don’t know other leagues, their players, at all,” Carvel added.
Whitten did say that the quality of the 16-team field speaks volumes about what college hockey is at this point.
“There’s tremendous depth, but there’s also great parity,” Whitten said. “That’s something that’s really unique as you look at the mix of east coast teams, west coast teams, or midwest teams. NCAA hockey has had a great run when you look at guys like Cale Makar and other young guns that have come up and had great NHL careers. It continues to be a great brand and a great game and we’re hoping to make our own little run ourselves here.”
Speaking by phone Wednesday afternoon, Whitten called the early days of the tournament a little different than what they would normally see.
“There’s a lot of excitement and preparedness,” Whitten said, calling the first two days in Bridgeport “low key.”
Whitten added that being bound to the hotel for the first two days was tough.
“That makes it hard,” Whitten said. “Guys love to be out and about, being prepared, being ready and practicing, but we’re not able to. We’re going to rest up, get through the COVID protocols and get back on the ice tomorrow (Thursday) and finish our prep for Friday.”
“The guys are really excited to be here,” Whitten said. “It’s a big stage and the guys have done a good job to get here and earn this opportunity.”
The feeling was similar on the other side for UMass.
“The most unusual thing is having a day off in the middle of the week,” Carvel said/ “We practiced Tuesday morning and we didn’t practice again until Thursday afternoon. Getting the guys heads reengaged is my most concerning thing right now because we rely heavily on our process, but when you take 36 or almost 48 hours off, it’s something that they’re not used to. I’m a little concerned about that, but we worked it our of them in practice. It’s different times. The buzz around the in-state tournament’s not the same. You come in here and you might have a little overlap with the other team, but it’s what we’ve got to do to get through it.”
For the Lakers, Whitten also referenced the family aspect for the players during the tournament. Players won’t be able to have any interaction with them during the event.
“It’s unfortunate in a lot of ways,” Whitten said. “We all understand it and we all want to operate safely. We’re in what we call our tier one designation, which is just the members of our travel party. We’re instructed to not have any interaction with anyone not in tier one. Not any direct interaction. Even for guys who have parents come to town, we won’t be able to see them or spend time with them, which is a challenging thing to do, but obviously you want to abide by the rules and make sure we can play and operate in a safe manner. A lot went into it form our institution, the NCAA.”
“We’re very appreciative of the season we’ve already had and the opportunity to keep going here,” Whitten added.
The winner of the Lake State/UMass game will face the winner of the other regional semi between Wisconsin and Bemidji State, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday.
Other regional semi-final games scheduled for Friday in the tournament include Midwest Region games between North Dakota, the top seed in the tournament, and American International, at 9:30 p.m. and Michigan meeting Minnesota Duluth at 4 p.m.
The championship games for both regions are set for Saturday.
Saturday will also see semi-final action for the Northeast and West Regionals.
The semis in the Northeast Region will see St. Cloud State face Boston University.
Notre Dame was scheduled to face Boston College in the other Northeast Region semi, but a positive COVID test within the Notre Dame program forced the team to withdraw.
Boston College will take on the winner of the St. Cloud/Boston University game in the Northeast Region final.
The West Regional semi-final games will see Minnesota face Nebraska Omaha and Minnesota State face Quinnipiac.
The championship games for both regions will take place on Sunday evening.
St. Lawrence, who won the ECAC Hockey conference title and the league’s automatic bid in the tournament, was forced to withdraw from the event on Sunday after a positive COVID test within the program.