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Lions women hockey looks to rebound from disappointing 2018-19

HANCOCK — When the 2017-18 season ended, there was hope in the Finlandia Lions women’s hockey team’s locker room that they were in the process of turning a corner. The Lions had won five games in 2017-18 and found themselves in the discussion for the NCHA playoffs heading into the final weekends of the season.

However, that all changed when things did not come together as planned in 2018-19. They lost seven games by two or fewer goals before finally earning a 1-0 win over Northland College on Jan. 26. They closed the season from there with a seven-game losing streak.

While the record looks bad on paper, head coach Matt Marchel liked a lot of what he saw in his group as they battled through a tough season, especially from a special group of seniors, who were freshmen when he first took over the program.

“(Last season was) obviously disappointing win-loss-record wise,” he said. “Anyone who’s been around knows that we played better hockey and we ever have before. I know the seniors want to go out on some wins. They want to get into playoffs senior year, everyone does, but it, especially for them, kind of sucked.

“I think they had a great year as far as seeing what we’re doing and what is possible with this program. They know the contributions they’ve made through the last four years. That senior class last year holds a special place in me, because they were the first class that I came in with. They were freshmen when I got this job and they stuck with me and stuck with the program and had a great time and are now off in the world doing what they do.”

Replacing the goal totals of Sierra Meiners was not going to be easy, but Marchel had hoped that scoring by committee would be the way the Lions would do it. Unfortunately, sophomore Abby Kolek was the only Lions skater to score more than three goals and junior Bella Abear was the only other skater with at least three tallies.

“That was the problem, scoring goals,” Marchel said. “We defended great, our transition game was good and we got our opportunities, we just didn’t have that the finish. We didn’t have Sierra Meiners, so that was a big hole in the lineup. She scored a lot of goals for us over four years.

That was the problem. We didn’t have girls putting the puck in the back of the net.”

Marchel was very pleased with the effort his team put in all three zones last season, despite the lack of scoring touch.

“The hockey being played was was a way higher level,” he said. “We had a lot more possession numbers and our minutes in the (offensive) zone were a lot higher than they ever have been. Going back and watching all the film all summer and stuff, you do grit your teeth a little bit when you lose these one-goal games, two-goal games to win games that you’re right there with with really good teams.”

One player who could help relieve some of the scoring pressure for the Lions this season is senior Kait Ryynanen. Ryynanen spent a large chunk of 2018-19 injured, but she has 10 career goals and 20 career points at Finlandia.

“She is an electric player out there,” Marchel said. “The girls are a little bit perkier when she when she is out there because you know that anytime she can beat somebody wide and take it to the net and score a goal. Our last weekend there, she came out to Aurora. We kind of got we kind of got beat down in one of the games pretty good, but again, you can see the explosiveness that she has. She’s an emotional center of this team. When she’s going, everyone’s going, and she goes almost every single day.”

Heading into her final season in the blue and white, Abear has shown that she has the speed to create opportunities when she is on the ice. Through three seasons, she has 10 career goals and 20 points.

“She creates a lot of turnovers with the hard pressure on the forecheck and as well as bouncing pucks in the neutral zone, she’ll blow by anybody,” said Marchel. “If anybody has a hesitation for a second, she’s already gone.”

Marchel is looking for more from leading scorer Taylor Pingrey, who had nine points as a freshman, and second-year player Brenna Ceglar, who saw action in 13 games last season. The Lions have also added a pure goal scorer in Kylee Hopp from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who has already shown some chemistry in practice with Ryynanen.

On the back end, the Lions lost a lot of experience in the graduations of Sarah Hockings and Caitlin Seigel, who logged a lot minutes over their careers at Finlandia. Juniors Rebecca Lilly and Kylee Dyni will look to gather up some of those minutes this season.

Lilly, who hails from Invercargill, New Zealand, is one of two tall defenders at Marchel’s disposal, and she is still learning how to use her strength in front of her own net.

Dyni, on the other hand, is on the smaller side, but showed flashes of her skill set with the puck last season.

Adding to the ranks, the Lions added Houghton native Cassidy Becia. Becia can play both forward and defense, and Marchel likes that she appears comfortable in both ends of the rink.

In goal, the Lions return a pair of seniors in Annah Smiddy and Sarah Gundry, who have both played a lot of key minutes for Finlandia in their careers.

Smiddy’s calming influence goes a long way towards helping the Lions get through tough situations.

“She’s a reverse Patrick Roy there’s just no rattle to her game whatsoever,” Marchel said. “As a player, and as a coach, that’s what I’m looking forward in my starting goalie, 100 percent. She’s just stone cold all the time, makes the saves she needs to make, and makes some of the saves she’s not supposed to make.”

Gundry has also been very good, when the team needs her to be. Where she differs from Smiddy is that she likes to handle the puck, something Smiddy is still working on.

The Lions have also added a freshman in Abby Edstrom, who was a finalist for Goaltender of the Year in Minnesota last season.

Finlandia will open the season with a road series at St. Catherine on Nov. 1 and 2. They will remain on the road until they return home to face St. Norbert on Nov. 22 and 23. They will close out the first half of their schedule with a home series against Marian two weekends later.

The second half of the Lions’ schedule will be tough, as they host Adrian and Concordia in between road trips to Wisconsin-Superior, St. Scholastica and Trine.

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