Timely break gives Lions an opportunity to heal

Lions still searching for their first win, but will use Christmas break to rest and recover

HANCOCK — Head coach Joe Burcar, who came into this season with 70 wins at the helm of the Finlandia Lions’ men’s hockey program and one MCHA league playoff title under his belt, has not been through a season like this one before. Thirteen games into the 2016-17 campaign, the Lions are still winless, having gone 0-13-0.

To make matters worse, the Lions find themselves at the bottom of the NCHA, thanks to an 0-8-0 record.

Still, there is good news on the horizon when the Lions return from their Christmas break: starting with a two-game series with St. Scholastica on Jan. 6 and 7, the Lions play only four games against teams in the top half of the NCHA, and six games against teams just above them in the standings, which offers an opportunity for them to gain ground if they can start finding the back of the net with some consistency.

“We are not scoring,” said Burcar. “From a coaching standpoint, we like the team. We’re having trouble scoring goals. We are getting chances.

“We still believe we can make a run. We feel if we can start scoring some goals, the wins will come.”

It does not take a deep study of the national statistics to see why the Lions have struggled this season. They currently rank 84th out of 85 teams in scoring offense (1.08 goals per game), 80th in scoring defense (4.92 gpg) and second in penalty minutes (28.1 per game).

More alarming, however, are special teams. The Lions’ power play ranks lowest in the NCAA at 3.0 percent thanks a 2-for-66 clip. That number would be easier to swallow if the Lions’ penalty kill was stronger, but it is not while clocking in at 74.7 percent.

Two big factors lead to these unfortunate numbers: injuries to key personnel and an inability to find a starting goaltender.

The injury factor reared its ugly head just two games into the season when the Lions had to deal with losing sophomores Alex Rezansoff and Kendall Bolen-Porter along with junior Cody Wickstrom. All three are back now, but the Lions have dressed 27 skaters for at least one game this season.

That number becomes staggering when compared to the fact that teams are only allowed to dress 18 per game. That has meant that Burcar and his staff have not fielded the same roster for two straight games yet.

“We’ve never had the same lineup,” said Burcar. “Any given night, it’s always putting in five or six guys. That makes it a little tough”

Burcar has been proud of his players for doing whatever it takes to stay in the lineup each night.

In the case of goaltending, the Lions are still waiting on one of the trio to take the reins and run with it. Given what Michigan Tech has been able to do with freshman Angus Redmond between the pipes, the benefit of having a go-to guy in net is crucial to a team’s success.

There is some good news on the goaltending front, however, sophomore Alec Rounds appears to be emerging as that starter for the Lions. Last weekend against Wisconsin-River Falls was the first weekend Rounds started both games.

“That’s the first time we were able to put a goalie in back-to-back,” said Burcar. “We thought he did very well on Friday. We put him back in on Saturday and he responded with another great effort.”

With the team struggled to score goals and and win games, it becomes easy to forget that Burcar had very little prep time before the season began with this group. Hired in August, Burcar had to quickly establish a staff, contact current players and incoming committed recruits, and began to build a rapport with everyone involved.

That is not a lot of time to pull everything together for a college hockey season at any level, and that has shown through in the struggles the Lions have gone through, especially defensively.

Through it all, senior Andrew Martin, who is the team’s captain, and sophomore Alex Rezansoff  both have stood out for their efforts night in and night out.

“They played this past weekend with significant injuries,” said Burcar. “Their leadership just by being able to play with the injuries they had, showed the others they can do this. By their actions, I think they showed this team how bad they want it.”

While the Lions are still searching for their first win of the season, this break comes at a good time, allowing them rest and recover from the large number of small injuries many members of the team are suffering from. When they reconvene after the break, they will need to buckle down for the second half of the season, which includes a number of “winnable” if they can put together a solid 60-minute effort consistently.