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College Hockey: Finlandia still learning lessons early

HANCOCK — After opening the season on the road with a pair of losses against Wisconsin-River Falls, the Finlandia Lions men’s hockey team had visions of opening the home portion of their 2019-20 season on the right foot. Then, Friday night happened.

In 31:54 of action, junior goaltender Marcus Gloss surrendered five goals as the No. 21 Aurora Spartans cruised to a 7-0 victory.

It was not the way the Lions wanted to start in front of their fans at the Houghton County Arena, where the team was debuting a number of upgrades to the building.

“Friday night was just kind of a domino effect,” said head coach Joe Burcar. “One thing went wrong and it just it trickled through everybody. We want to wipe that out of our memory bank. It was just a bad night.”

The performance led to some much-needed discussion between coaches and players about the effort level needed at the Division III level to be successful.

“We talked about it after the game on Friday, briefly,” Burcar said. “We met Saturday morning and guys were upset. We’re embarrassed, and they knew they were better than that. That’s really what we got out of it is they they just they knew they didn’t come to play Friday night. It was somewhat embarrassing to them.”

Looking to clean out the palette, the Lions came out much better on Saturday.

Sophomore Tyler Watungwa struck 15:59 into the contest. That scored held until 28 seconds into the middle frame, when captain Connor Hannon buried a shorthanded goal to put the Lions up 2-0.

The Spartans evened things early in the third period, forcing overtime. Just 57 seconds into the extra session, the Spartans sent the home crowd home disappointed.

Burcar was pleased with how Gloss bounced back Saturday.

“We pulled Marcus on Friday night and he’s the first to admit it was the right time,” Burcar said. “In Marcus’ history of when he’s been here, that is the second time we’ve pulled them. His response the next day is incredible. He understands what happened the night before. He accepts that he moves on and the next day, he shows you why he should be back in the net. He had a stellar game on Saturday.”

The Lions have a number of underclassmen playing important roles early in the season and some of that inexperience shows up in how the team responds to situations throughout games.

“We’re working, putting freshman in big roles top six roles, power play, (penalty kill), on the back end,” said Burcar. “From a coaching standpoint, as a coaching staff, you want to groom your young guys. We’ve been in this rebuilding process, bringing in these heavy classes. This will be the last year bringing in such a large group. That will balance out.

“You’re putting your freshman in a lot of heavy minutes where you’d rather see and groom them at a little bit of a slower pace. They’re taken in stride.”

While the youngsters are figuring things out, the team has not yet seen a team from the NCHA North Division, and will not again this weekend when they travel to face Adrian.

“We haven’t played any of our North division teams yet,” said Burcar. “So, we’ll play Adrian this weekend, which is the South Division. At the same time, we got some non conference early in the season. We’ve got a few more just before Christmas break.

“We’re going to get through this. This team is too good not to have success.”

This weekend, the Lions travel to face the No. 9 Bulldogs. The Lions had the Bulldogs within striking distance late last season before falling, 5-3. Adrian comes into the weekend having split with Marian last weekend, falling 6-3 on Friday before winning Saturday, 5-4.

The Bulldogs are led by senior forward Dino Balsamo, who has team highs in goals (6) and points (8).

Adrian’s second-leading scorer has a familiar name for local hockey fans, Andrew Bellant. The transfer from Michigan Tech has one goal and seven points through four games. Bellant is one of six transfers dotting the Bulldogs’ lineup.

“They’re trying to fill some voids in their lineup right now,” said Burcar. “They had a lot of transfers, they have six (Division I) transfers in, but at the same time, it is it is what it is. We know what Adrian is all about. We know how they’re going to play and you know if we can build off what we did Saturday, we’re looking for success this weekend.”

The Lions and Bulldogs will faceoff Friday night at 7:05 p.m. at the Arrington Ice Arena. Saturday’s game will start at 3:05 p.m.

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