Lions men enter final weekend looking for a taste of magic

Finlandia forward Max Messier (28) drives up the ice with the puck during a game against Marian Saturday at the Houghton County Arean in Hancock. (Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette)

HANCOCK — As the Finlandia Lions men’s hockey team enters the final weekend of the regular season, they do so at home, and during the same weekend that Michigan Tech celebrates its Winter Carnival. With playoffs a long shot due to a sweep at the hands of Marian last weekend, the Lions are looking for a little of that Winter Carnival magic of their own, as they trail both Concordia Wisconsin and Lawrence in the race for the final playoff spot.

The Lions need a lot of things to go their way this weekend as they are 3-18-1 on the season and 2-14-0 in NCHA play, yet they are just six points back of both Lawrence and Concordia Wisconsin for that final playoff spot. Of course, they can take a big step towards helping themselves out by earning a sweep against Concordia Wisconsin at home this weekend.

“I know the team is just excited just to have a chance, especially at this time of the year,” said Lions coach Joe Burcar. “We have a chance, and we’re not just saying, ‘let’s finish the year, and moral victories.’ We have a chance.”

Burcar and his staff have the Lions focused on Friday night’s contest, since that is the game that is in their control at this point.

“We’re going to have to definitely bring our ‘A’ game. and be very good on Friday night,” Burcar said. “We’ll worry about Saturday when Saturday gets here. But, the biggest thing is just shutting them down as far as playing. For us, the most important thing is us out-competing them for 60 minutes.”

With the NCHA having switched to a three-point system for games this season, nothing is set in stone for the conference playoffs beyond the fact that Adrian and St. Norbert have both clinched home ice. With so many scenarios still up in the air, no team can take this final weekend of the regular season lightly, which could play to the Lions’ benefit.

“Everything is going to depend on Friday, Saturday night this week,” said Burcar. “So, good for our league. I mean we’re trying to get in. We’re battling with two other teams. I know everybody else is doing the same thing.

“We need help, but I know the teams that need to help us have to have a good weekend. They have to win, which helps us. They don’t have to put it on cruise control for the weekend. They need to win.”

For the Lions, that job was made tougher when junior winger P.J. Donnelly suffered an upper body injury and will miss this weekend.

“We lost P.J. for the upcoming weekend, for sure,” Burcar said. “Again, the motto is ‘Next Man Up,’ and our guys believe that. We’ve already been practicing with different line combinations for those spots.”

Last weekend, Burcar and his staff did some line juggling after Donnelly’s injury on Friday, and while it did not pay off in that contest, it did on Saturday, when the Lions 3-1 in the third period, but fought their way back to force overtime.

A big part of that success on Saturday was the play of freshman winger Matteo Ybarra, who scored twice in the contest. After Donnelly’s injury, Ybarra played on a line with alternate captain Max Messier, a sophomore, and freshman winger Owen Schmidt, who fit well on the right side.

“First of all, it’s just nice to say it’s freshmen and sophomores that are making impacts,” said Burcar. “You just start thinking of what could be down the road and we believe that they’re obviously happy here. They’re having a good time in the locker room, and you’re just excited seeing that crystal ball, and seeing what the future holds for these guys, and what they can do for this program. What they’ve done this year is just absolutely amazing as freshmen and sophomores. So, we’ve got a bright future with that crew.”

Scouting the Falcons

First-year head coach Jim Mosso has instituted a lot of change for the Falcons this season, and that has led to a tough season in terms of success on the ice. The Falcons are younger than the Lions, which is interesting, since it will be the first weekend Finlandia has had a series like this.

The Falcons are 4-19 overall and 4-12 in the NCHA after a split with Lawrence last weekend.

Sophomore forward Nick Wieben leads the team in assists (11) and points (14) in 23 games. Sophomore forward Zach Brydges has a team-high eight goals and 12 points in 22 games.

Two freshmen forwards have also been important pieces for the Falcons. Collin Kerchoff has four goals and 12 points while Grant Newcomer has four goals and 12 points.

In goal, freshman Gabe Rosek has appeared in 18 games, starting 14. He is 4-11 on the season with a 4.20 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.

“The biggest thing, after watching them on film, what they’ve done this year is the coaches have them competing for 60 minutes,” Burcar said. “They forecheck well. He runs four lines. It’s a young team that everybody has something to do with (their success).”

Game times

Friday night, the Lions and the Falcons will face off at 5 p.m. at the Houghton County Arena in Hancock. Saturday’s contest is set to start at 4 p.m.


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