Lions men grew throughout the course of the season

Finlandia defenseman Kevin Bostwick tracks the puck during a game against Bethel earlier this season at the Houghton County Arena in Hancock. (Photo courtesy of Finlandia University)

HANCOCK — While the Finlandia Lions men’s hockey team did come up short in their chase of a playoff spot in the NCHA Tournament, coach Joe Burcar felt that the team learned a lot along the way. He felt that the group grew over the course of the season, but that should not take away from their accomplishments.

The Lions finished 4-18-2 overall and 3-14-1 in NCHA play. The Lions lost five games by two goals or less. They blew a 5-1 lead against Lawrence and had to win in overtime. They seemingly had the game-winning goal before a missed call sent them to overtime against Marian, and they had to score third period goals both nights against Concordia (Wisconsin) to force overtime both nights.

The most important thing, in Burcar’s mind, was that they were willing to figure things out as the season moved along.

“I’m not disappointed,” Burcar said. “You look over at the season, there’s a lot of good things. Matteo (Ybarra) has 18 points. Max (Messier) has 14 points. P.J. (Donnelly), I think, had 12 points.

“We had six guys over 10 points, which we haven’t had. Max and Mateo were nominated for All-Conference and All-Rookie, so we’ll see what happens with that. There’s a lot of positives to come out of the year.”

The last time a Lions’ skater had more than 18 points in a season was in 2013-14, when Shigenobu Kakudate and Travis Armstrong both scored at least 20 points. This season, Ybarra scored 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games. Considering that, before the season, the Lions weren’t quite sure what kind of shape Ybarra’s game would be in after missing multiple seasons due to injury, this season feels like a bonus.

“(His injury history) was such a concern, because he’s been out of competitive hockey for over three years, with a significant injury that he had,” said Burcar. “But, obviously, talking to him through last summer, and the work that he was putting in, you kind of take some of that worry away because his work on clips that I watched, and after talking to him, you (knew) he was hungry. He really prepared himself well.”

Messier, a sophomore, moved from wing to center this season, while also wearing an “A” on his sweater. He lost his grandfather during the fall semester, and he struggled at times with his temper in the first half of the season.

After a 5-0 loss to Trine at home on Jan. 7, Messier took it upon himself to be better. He took only two penalties the rest of the season, and was a bigger help to the Lions on the ice because he was not in the box. He scored five goals and seven points over his final 10 games.

“It’s been amazing,” said Burcar. “I don’t have the exact stats, but he was not in the penalty box at all. I think maybe once or twice, but overall, just his impact on the ice, in the locker room, after a few discussions, and more so put on him, he just was a man about it, decided enough is enough.”

Messier seemingly had different linemates every weekend once injuries started to pile up for the Lions, yet Burcar was impressed by how he seemed to handle everything in stride.

“We could never keep that line together with P.J.,” Burcar said. “We had Matteo there for a while. We moved Matteo, and some other guys got hurt, to balance some lines out. So, Max was not fighting it, but he always had one or two different linemates. Again, credit to him for stepping up, and being responsible, and helping the team.”

Before he got hurt late in the season, Donnelly was having a strong year alongside Messier. He had three goals and 12 points in 18 games.

“It was so nice to see, because there’s a player that’s been hurt so often in his career,” said Burcar. “To finally see him healthy, and what he could do, he was, at a point there, producing in almost every single game.”

The injuries and the need for players to step up gave three freshmen a chance to show what they were capable of. Burcar is very excited to see Owen Schmidt, James Eng, and Abe Laggis take more strides next season.

On the back end, junior defenseman Chris Beyer struggled for a large portion of the season. However, against Marian, Burcar moved him to forward, and the third-year player responded well to the change in his situation.

While Beyer struggled defensively, sophomore Brendan Erickson elevated his game, which allowed Burcar to move Beyer to forward late in the season. Erickson finished fourth on the Lions in scoring with four goals and 10 points in 24 games.

“He’s a talented kid, and getting him to understand that you have to compete at a high level, you have to be engaged every shift, and if you’re going to be playing at this level, you have to give it everything you got, you can’t take shifts off,” Burcar said. “I think, obviously, he’s offensively gifted. He’s starting to get better with his defensive game.”

Another defender who grew throughout the season was sophomore Garrett Alton. Recruited as a forward, Alton proved willing to do whatever it took to get into the lineup, even if that meant playing every position but goaltender in a given weekend. By the end of the season, he proved himself defensively that Burcar and his staff did not pull him out of situations where the team needed strong defense.

In goal, sophomore Dakota Meyer, who won the starting job, struggled early in the season with the adjustment to playing every game at the college level. However, Burcar and his staff challenged him in practice to improve himself, and he responded by giving the Lions a chance to win nearly every night.

He started 23 of the 24 games he appeared in, going 4-17-2 over that span.

“He gave us a chance to win,” Burcar said. “He was a guy that was always told in juniors, you’re too small, you’re too this or too that. So, he never had an opportunity.”

With several players in key roles taking strides, Burcar is hopeful that things are turning in the right direction at Finlandia.

“The margin of victory sometimes can be very minimal, and we can say that about a handful of games,” he said. “This is something that we all need to remember going into next year, because we missed the playoffs. In the big picture, these are the things that we’re going to do, what we can do, to control (our fate).”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today