Lions look to build off first win
\DULUTH, Minn. — Since head coach Joe Burcar agreed to move back across the country and take over the Finlandia Lions men’s hockey team, he admits he has had more sleepless nights than sleep-filled. Many of those nights were due to the nation’s longest winless streak as his Lions had gone 0-25-0 last season before they rattled off a 0-15-1 start.
“It’s been a tough year-and-a-half,” Burcar said. “I keep saying, ‘Trust the process.’ We work these guys extremely hard. You can see just about every game even this year, we are in every game except for a couple that got away from us.
“Credit to the players, they kept believing. You couldn’t tell this week in practice that we were a team that didn’t win a game.”
That all changed Tuesday night at the Houghton County Arena.
With junior Avery Huibregtse’s goal at the 13:16 mark of the second period, the Lions found themselves in a place they had been in numerous times before: a one-goal lead. But this time they did something different. Backstopped by freshman Marcus Gloss, the Lions were able to figure out ways to frustrate the Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets.
When the final buzzer rang out, the proverbial monkey fell off the Lions’ backs. Players raised their sticks in the air. Injured and other non-dressed players raised their fists. The elation sounded through the locker room while a sigh of relief washed over Burcar.
“The reaction of the players afterward, and the guys that were not in the lineup was just truly amazing,” said Burcar. “The sheer joy of getting that monkey off our back and knowing that we are a good team, just an incredible feeling (Tuesday) night.
Leading scorer Bryce Mitzel, a junior transfer, was not in the lineup. While the Lions were dealing with that hole in their lineup, five former local high school heroes, Gloss, sophomore Danny Hill, freshman Cale Markham, freshman Hunter Kero and freshman Connor Hannon, were all busy figuring out how best to help the team on the ice.
The local contingent has grown in recent weeks with the call-up of Markham from the junior varsity squad, and the additions of Kero and Hannon with the start of the new semester. All three have made immediate impacts on the lineup.
Burcar feels the trio are stepping in at just the right time to help the Lions get over the hump and earn their first win.
“When I was hired here, that was one of the first things I did,” Burcar said of recruiting more local talent. “A year-and-a-half of work has paid off. They are going to make a difference. They are talented kids. They are easy to coach.”
The trio is part of a 15-man group Burcar had in the lineup of players who were not on the roster when Burcar took over the Lions last September. The veteran coach wanted to change the culture of the Lions when he arrived. With such a large group of recruits in the lineup at once, it appears that the team might finally be turning that corner.
Hannon has four points through his first five games. Kero has two. Markham has one. The trio has combined for as many points through their 13 games as Mitzel has in 16.
This weekend, the Lions put their newfound confidence to the test as they hit the road for a pair of conference games against teams they have not yet faced. On Friday, the Lions will face the St. Scholastica Saints. On Saturday, the Lions will take on the Northland Lumberjacks.
The Saints (11-5-1 overall, 5-4-1 NCHA) have been very good at home, picking up six of their 11 wins within the friendly confines of Mars-Lakeview Arena. They are currently sixth in the NCHA with 11 points.
The Lumberjacks come into the weekend with a record of 6-9-2 overall and 3-6-1, good for seven points in NCHA play.
LADIES HIT THE ROAD TOO
The women’s hockey team is also hitting the road this weekend. They are playing a rare Saturday-Sunday series against the Northland Lumberjills. The Lions (2-12-1 overall, 2-5-1 NCHA) enter the weekend tied in the NCHA with the Lumberjills (4-10-1 overall, 2-5-1 NCHA), so points will be at a premium as the Lions continue their push to make the playoffs.
The Lumberjills are paced by sophomore Robyn Matula, who has scored five goals and eight points, both team-highs. Sophomore goaltender Maggie Cusey has also been stellar in net for the Lumberjills, racking up a record of 2-3-1 with a 2.88 goals against average and a .932 save percentage.
Houghton native Vivienne Kallio has one assist through 13 games in her second season on the Lumberjills’ blue line.