It’s safe to say this season hasn’t gone the way Damon Whitten might have hoped.
After finishing a surprise second place in the WCHA last season, winning the conference tournament and making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996, the Lake Superior State head coach was hoping this would be the season the Lakers could take the next step. Perhaps they could challenge Minnesota State and win the first league title in the new CCHA.
Instead, the season has been a little more difficult. The Lakers are 14-15-1 and instead of battling Minnesota State for a league title, they are currently trying to overcome Bowling Green for the fourth and final home-ice slot in the upcoming playoffs.
Whitten said during a phone interview Tuesday that although he thought his team had the ability to compete for a league title, he also knew it was going to be a challenge with some new faces joining the program this year. It took this new-look edition of the Lakers a little while to gel but he thinks the team is coming together at the right time.
“Last year was such a great year, with second place and having home ice (and making the NCAA tournament),” Whitten said. “We wanted to be back, and we wanted to knock off Manakto and try and compete for first place.
“The disappointment is we’re not where we want to be, but we also knew we were losing a lot and there would be some new pieces being plugged in and we had to see how guys would do, so we were willing to be a little patient there. Now, it’s good to see guys have stuck with it and that patience is starting to pay off.”
The Lakers had a good start to the season, going 6-3-1 against solid nonconference opposition, but two long winless stretches (a five-game losing streak that lasted most of November and a four-game skid at the start of January) left the Lakers playing catchup in the CCHA standings. Part of that was due to not having quite enough healthy bodies – Whitten said last week was the first time in three months the Lakers have had even close to a full team available for games and practices.
“We’ve got as close to a full team as we’ve had for the first time in two, maybe three months,” he said. “It’s been hard to find consistency but I don’t fault the players, I think they’ve done a good job through what’s been a challenging season. It’s good to get some good results, guys are playing well and our competition levels are way back up because we have more healthy bodies.”
Recent results have been encouraging – the Lakers snapped their January losing skid with a split against Northern Michigan, which included a 6-1 win on Jan. 28. Last weekend, they managed to sweep Ferris State at home with 5-3 and 4-0 victories.
“We’re getting contributions from throughout our lineup,” Whitten said of LSSU’s recent success, noting that with only four seniors, it’s been nice to see the freshmen get on the scoreboard. “Saturday night our freshmen in particular had their best games of the year. They’ve been playing a lot in critical situations and played well, so that was great to see.”
But leading the way for the Lakers on the weekend were the team’s stars. Junior forward Louis Boudon had two goals and three assists in the series, while defenseman Jake Willets had a hat trick against his former team on Saturday night and Miroslav Mucha had a five-point weekend with five assists.
“Boudon is still playing at a very high level, I think Miroslav Mucha is playing his best hockey for us that he’s played in his career,” Whitten said. “And Willets, I was surprised to find out that Saturday night was the first time a Laker defenseman had a hat trick in our school’s history, so that was a pretty great night for him and a great night for our program.”
Boudon, the team’s leading scorer, has 13 goals and 20 assists on the year while Mucha, who has at least a point in each of LSSU’s last four games, has eight goals and 20 assists.
The two wins against the Bulldogs were also extremely important for the Lakers in the standings: the sweep allowed the Lakers to leapfrog idle Northern Michigan into fifth place and give them some much-needed breathing room in the standings. They are four points ahead of NMU and seven points ahead of FSU with four games to play in the regular season. Now, instead of battling for Ferris for sixth and seventh they find themselves in the thick of a race for home ice with Bowling Green.
The Lakers travel to St. Paul this weekend to take on last-place St. Thomas; if they can sweep the Tommies on the road, they can return to Sault Ste. Marie for a final series against the Falcons.
“We’ve given ourselves a good chance now,” Whitten said. “Friday’s the biggest game of the year. We have to keep handling our own business and if we do that, we can control our own destiny at the end of the season.”