For Lake Superior State, a team that had never won a WCHA playoff title in its history, just getting a chance to play for one meant a lot to the Lakers.
Just 80 seconds in, LSSU jumped on Northern Michigan, getting a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the night en route to a 6-3 victory at the Verizon Center Saturday night in Mankato, Minn.
Ashton Calder led the way for the Lakers with three goals, including two in the final frame.
While his first, which came at 13:30 of the second, ended up as the game-winner, it was the second one, which came shorthanded 11:04 into the third period, that meant the most to the second-seeded Lakers, as it put the game out of reach before the Wildcats could get a third goal of their own.
For Calder, being a part of helping get the Lakers back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996 was a goal he set for himself when returned home to go to college.
“When I chose to come back home, I was excited,” he said. “I knew there was a lot of work to be done. I’m just happy that I got it with this group of guys. I mean, it’s big for our town. We’ve been, back in the day, Lake State was a big national championship contender. It’s been awhile, so I’m happy to be a part of trying to bring it back.”
Being a local kid that has been a leader all season for the Lakers (19-6-3 overall), Calder’s leadership on the scoresheet means a lot to coach Damon Whitten’s squad.
“It’s big,” Whitten said. “I reflect to Michigan Tech a little bit. Tanner Kero was so important to that Michigan Tech program, not only for on the ice, and how good of a player he was, but the impact he had in our community. Chase Gamlin’s a senior, another Soo native, and Ashton Calder, a little bit more well-known because he’s leading our team, and a great player.
“We need those Ashton Calders up in Sault Ste. Marie, and throughout the U.P., and in northern Michigan, for our program. He’s going to inspire the next generation.”
While Calder’s hat trick was a big part of the win, Whitten was also extremely proud of the line of Dustin Manz, Brandon Puricelli, and Jack Jeffers. The trio, which features two sophomores in Manz and Puricelli and a junior in Jeffers, accounted for the game’s first two goals and five points combined on the night.
A line that had struggled to score all year, Whitten felt that it was a huge relief to see the group stick together and finish strong.
“It’s a line that, two or three weeks ago, they were really frustrated,” said Whitten. “I’d imagine if we would have grabbed those guys, they probably would have asked and maybe split up and find some new linemates. They just, they weren’t connecting. They didn’t have chemistry. We really dug in with those guys, extra video, pulling up old games, talking to them about how important they are for the team.
“I’m glad they stuck out stuck with it together and, instead of pulling apart, they pulled together. They had a huge impact.”
They were rewarded just 80 seconds into the contest when Manz knocked a rebound past Wildcats goaltender Rico DiMatteo. Puricelli potted the second goal for the line and the team at 12:02 of the first off a feed from Manz while stationed on the back door.
The game remained 2-0 past the halfway point of the contest before Lakers defenseman Jacob Nordqvist jumped into the action from the Lakers’ bench. He buried a one-timer off a pass from Miroslav Mucha at 10:50.
Trailing 4-0, but on the power play, the sixth-seeded Wildcats got one back at 19:14 of the second period. Off the faceoff to start the advantage, winger Andre Ghantous went hard to the net. Winger A.J. Vanderbeck fired a shot that Ghantous tipped home.
While getting the goal so quickly on the power play was exactly what the Wildcats (11-17-1 overall) needed, head coach Grant Potulny felt that the intermission that came shortly after slowed their momentum as his team tried to mount a comeback.
“Tonight was just one of those games where even in, like the first or second shift of the game, a puck up to our (defense), it was just a hair too (far) in front of them, or the saucer pass didn’t bounce,” Potulny said. “(You) get a couple things going, and you score at the end of the period, and then it’s a period break.”
Vanderbeck scored a goal 3:05 into the third with a quick shot off a faceoff, cutting the lead to 4-2. Potulny liked the effort of Vanderbeck and his linemates, Brandon Schulz and Alex Frye, who had the only assist on Vanderbeck’s goal.
“I thought they did get better as the game went,” said Potulny. “Alex has been a nice addition to our team. I thought Brandon Schultz had a great second half of the year, and they kind of fit pretty well together.”
After Calder extended the Lakers’ lead back to three at 5-2, the Wildcats responded 4:48 later when winger David Keefer spun on a puck in the slot and buried a shot over the shoulder of Lakers goaltender Mareks Mitens.
Looking to make a dent in the Lakers’ two-goal lead with 3:08 left in the contest, Potulny pulled DiMatteo. The move backfired as Calder snatched up the puck inside his own blueline, skated it into the Wildcats’ zone and fired it into the back of the net at 17:24, sealing both his hat trick and the game.
With the win, the Lakers await their seeding in the NCAA tournament, which will be announced Sunday.