When the month of October ended, Lake Superior State was 2-6-0, having lost consecutive games to Denver, Michigan and Notre Dame.
The Lakers followed that up with a sweep of Ferris State to open November only to drop 11 of their next 14 games and find themselves on the outside looking in as 2019 ended.
The Lakers are 9-20-3 after splitting with Michigan Tech, a far cry from their 23-13-2 record a year ago.
For coach Damon Whitten’s squad, the lessons of learning how to win have been difficult to learn.
“We’re a different team coming off a season that we haven’t had in many years,” said Whitten. “I think learning how we get the program back to a winning state is part of that. We’re able to do that last year. Then we take a step back this year.
“We swept that opening series and then had a really challenging schedule. We went the other way. Instead of learning how to win, we were learning how to just come close, and then fall a little bit short.”
Since the start of 2020, the Lakers are 3-3-2 and are coming off a split with Michigan Tech over the past weekend.
They borrowed a little of the Huskies’ Winter Carnival magic to earn a 7-3 win on Friday. The magic, as Whitten saw it, was scoring from players that don’t see the scoresheet much, something that had been missing from the Lakers’ lineup for some time.
“I think the big thing, we’ve talked about it locally, for a little bit (is that) we haven’t gotten secondary scoring much this year,” Whitten said. “It’s been a challenge. A couple of our top producers have been consistent, certainly Max Humitz has been outstanding all season long. Then a couple guys like (Ashton) Calder and Pete Veillette have been on a little bit and all scored fairly consistently, but we haven’t gotten secondary scoring. We got it Friday night, and what a difference it makes.”
The Lakers are playing much better hockey over the past few weeks, and a lot of that starts with Humitz, their captain. Since Jan. 4, Humitz has five goals and eight points in eight games.
Having put up 17 goals and 26 points on the season, Humitz is drawing the attention of opponents’ top lines and top defenders, yet he is still finding his way onto the scoresheet consistently.
“For him to be able to continue to contribute night in and night out with the attention he gets night in and night out, that’s what makes him remarkable,” said Whitten. “He knows where to be and he knows how to finish. (I) give him a ton of credit for doing it with all the attention he’s gotten.”
Just a year removed from the loss of his father just after the Lakers won the 2018 Great Lakes Invitational, the senior is playing the game the way Whitten’s staff wants him to, and he seems to be using the team and the game to help him deal with the loss of a man who has been such a big part of Humitz’s life prior.
“His dad was his youth coach,” Whitten said. “I think one of the hard things for Max is that he talked to his dad every single day. To not have that voice on a daily basis is obviously really challenging and difficult, but he has used the arena and the game of hockey as a little bit of escape on a daily basis.”
Humitz’s 120 shots are nearly double that of the team’s second-leading shooter in Calder’s 66.
Calder himself had a strong weekend against the Huskies. He scored two goals Friday night, including a short-handed tally. Saturday, he added a goal and an assist.
Whitten likes the fact that Calder is starting to use his 6-foot-1 frame to his advantage.
“He can do it all,” Whitten said. “He can score. He can make plays. He’s got the ability with his frame and strength to be a power forward-type of player.
“We’re asking all those things (of him). (He) plays in all situations for us.”
Whitten feels that Calder, who came on strong in the second half of last season, has the tools to be a leader for his squad moving forward. The Sault Ste. Marie native reminds Whitten, who served as an assistant at Michigan Tech prior to moving on to the Lakers, of another local star he coached when he was in Houghton.
“I compare him to Tanner Kero,” said Whitten. “He’s a hometown kid for us. Tanner meant so much to our program at Michigan Tech and helped us get patchy and helped us get that team going, inspiring the next generation of young Houghton players.
“Ashton is one of those guys for us. He’s a local kid. We need some local talent here year in and year out to get into our lineup and impact our lineup. He’s got a chance to be a really good player.”
A third piece of the puzzle for the Lakers has been the play of junior goaltender Mareks Mitens, who has seen action in 31 contests this season. Since Dec. 6, he has been the Lakers’ best defender, only giving up three goals or more four times over the course of 13 games.
Whitten feels that his starting netminder’s game has come around as he has gotten used to the workload.
The Lakers got senior winger Brayden Gelsinger back from injury in early December, and while his offense has not really returned yet, Whitten feels he is getting closer with each weekend. Whitten is also hopeful to have senior defenseman Collin Saccoman back as the Lakers play four of their final six games at home, giving the team a full roster of active players for the first time this season.
The Lakers will play Friday night’s game this weekend against Alabama Huntsville at Taffy Abel Arena and Saturday’s contest at the Memorial Gardens in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Whitten feels that the change should be a fun one for his team.
“In our entire history, we’ve never played in Sault, Ontario,” said Whitten. “That’s going to be a little bit of a unique thing. It’ll be interesting how it goes. I feel like (there’s a) kind of a nice timing to it. It’s gonna break up a two-week homestand.”
Trailing Bowling Green by seven points, the Lakers have their work cut out for them if they want to move up to sixth in the WCHA standings, but Whitten feels that his squad is ready for the challenge.
Beavers, Wildcats in chase for second
Bemidji State enters this weekend needing points to keep ahead of its opponent, Northern Michigan.
The Wildcats are looking to bounce back after struggling to a pair of losses to Minnesota State over the weekend.
Northern Michigan scored a goal in each period Friday night against the Mavericks, but could not get much else going. Saturday, the Wildcats could not find the back of the net in a 1-0 loss.
The Beavers enjoyed a weekend off after sweeping the Falcons.
Big weekend for Bulldogs
With Michigan Tech coming to town, Ferris State comes into this weekend looking for three or more points.
The Bulldogs trail Alaska Anchorage by three points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the WCHA standings.
The Huskies come into the weekend having split with the Lakers, and are looking to catch Alaska, who holds a five-point lead in the race for the fourth and final home playoff spot.
The Bulldogs dropped a pair of games at Northern Michigan two weekends ago.