Lions return home in search of playoff positioning

Finlandia forward Matteo Ybarra carries the puck into the offensive zone during a game against Trine on Saturday. Jan. 7, at the Houghton County Arena in Hancock. (David Archambeau/For the Gazette)

HANCOCK — Despite being tied both nights heading into the final frame, the Finlandia Lions men’s hockey team came away from their series with the MSOE Raiders with no points and the feeling that they deserved a better fate than that both nights.

With the sweep at the hands of the Raiders, the Lions (3-16-2 overall, 2-12 NCHA) cannot catch the Marian Sabres for seventh in the NCHA standings, however, that does not mean they are out of playoff contention. They trail both Concordia Wisconsin and Lawrence by four points each, but that gap could be closed with a pair of strong weekends at home to close out the regular season.

Coach Joe Burcar feels that, with a strong weekend against the Sabres this weekend, the Lions can turn a corner they have been trying to turn for much of the second half of the season.

“This isn’t like any other year, it’s not,” he said. “We, as coaches, have to trust the process and we’re just, we’re in a different realm of things.

“The only thing missing is wins right now. The biggest thing is like if we were not competing hard, if we were not improving, there’d be major concerns, you know? But, the thing that’s missing right now is the wins. That’s the bottom line. We’re gonna get over that hump.I believe that in my heart.”

On Friday night against the Raiders, the Lions got goals from junior winger P.J. Donnelly and alternate captain Max Messier as part of a two-goal second period that saw the Lions take the lead at 2-1 for a little over a minute. The Raiders responded at 15:54 to even things before scoring twice in the first 5:01 of the third to put the game out of reach.

Still, Burcar was proud of the team for the way it played most of the contest Friday.

“Again, we had opportunities, we had power play time,” Burcar said. “It was a couple of mistakes in key moments.”

Saturday’s game was 0-0 heading into the third before the Raiders scored three goals in just over 10 minutes to earn the sweep.

“You could probably take a half dozen plays out of each game this weekend and that could swing the favor to us,” said Burcar. “That’s all it’s coming down to now, where we’re going to third, and most games. I can honestly tell our team, since the second game in November against St. Norbert when we lost 3-1 against them, showed the film, showed them all the clips of our scoring chances against a national contending team, and we just continue to make progress since then.

“I don’t see us stepping back right now.”

Burcar believes in his group’s ability to take the next step.

“I believe in just the progress that we’re (making),” he said. “I believe that. The number of years I’ve been around the game of hockey, this has to transcend. It has to.

“Hockey is a great game, but you’re only going to be rewarded when you compete for an honest 60 minutes. There’s been mistakes made.”

Scouting the Sabres

The Sabres come to Hancock 8-11-2 on the season and 5-7-2 in NCHA play. Since getting swept by MSOE to open January, they have earned critical points from series against Lawrence, St. Norbert and Aurora.

Sophomore forward James Knee leads the team in goals (9) and points (22) in 21 games. Senior Jack Sampson has also been good, with a team-high 14 assists and 20 points in 21 games.

Kingford native Daunte Fortner is starting to pick up points for the Sabres as well, scoring six goals and 14 points in 21 games this season.

In goal, senior Colby Muise has been strong, appearing in 19 games and starting all of them. He has an 8-9-2 record with a 2.87 goals against average and a .909 save percentage.

“They have a four-year starter in net,” Burcar said. “They have one line that’s 6-foot-2, 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, that’s their go-to line. They have Dante Fortner, who’s starting to score for them.

“We all know him.”

Game times

The Lions and Sabres face off at 7:15 p.m. Friday night at the Houghton County Arena. Saturday, the two teams face off at 4 p.m.

Ladies have a week off

The Lions women’s hockey team has a rare weekend off this weekend before they face the Sabres next Sunday and Monday, Feb. 12 and 13. The Lions will still be chasing their first win of the season and the first win of coach Mike Kuruc’s tenure as they are 0-21 overall and 0-12 in NCHA play to this point in the season.


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