Lake Superior once had one of the best programs in college hockey.
Now, the Lakers are rebuilding their program. They appear to be headed in the right direction.
The team is 7-7 overall and 4-6 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, going into this weekend’s home series against Bowling Green.
Lake Superior missed the WCHA playoffs in 2014, but has steadily improved since. The Lakers were seventh in the league last season with records of 14-22-5 overall and 10-13-5 in the league.
This season, the Lakers started the season with sweeps of Michigan State, Alabama-Huntsville and Alaska (Fairbanks), although they have have lost six of their last seven games facing a difficult string of games against Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, Ferris State and Michigan.
Lake Superior has played in the NCAA Frozen Four four times, winning national championships in 1988, 1992 and 1994 and losing in the championship game in 1993. The program then fell on hard times, its last league championship coming in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 1996.
The Lakers are in their third season under head coach Damon Whitten, who was an assistant coach at Michigan Tech before going to Lake Superior. He played college hockey at Michigan State under former BG head coach Ron Mason.
“They’re a program that went through some change, and that change is showing itself,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “Damon and his staff have done a great job of making Lake Superior State relevant not only in our league, but the college hockey world. I’m looking forward to the series. It’s going to be a very difficult series.
“I like their combination of skill and competitiveness which, to me, is the same combination we’re looking for. They’ll make hockey plays and fight you for it all over the ice.”
BG is 7-1-1 in its last nine games overall and 5-0-1 in its last six WCHA games. The Falcons were the coaches pick to win the league championship, but started 0-6-1 overall and 0-2 in the WCHA. Lake Superior was seventh in the coaches poll.
“We were picked to be a top team in this league,” Bergeron said. “This weekend, we are playing a top team in this league. We better be ready. There’s lots to like about (Lake Superior).”
MORE LAKERS: Lake Superior has an excellent goalie in Gordon Defiel. The junior has a 2.49 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 13 games, including 12 starts. Now, the Lakers are defending well as a team.
Of the 23 Lakers who have played this season, seven are freshmen, 10 are sophomores, five are juniors and only one is a senior.
“Those young people who were getting exposed for being young aren’t young any more. They’re defending really, really hard,” Bergeron said. “Now, you’re two to three years into that transition, and you can see how cohesive of a unit they are defensively. That makes the goalie’s job easier. When the goalie is called upon, he’s there to make the save.
“What happens over time, when you’ve got good people teaching a certain way of playing, now you’re seeing the rewards of that. They’re just a really good team.”
OFFENSE: The Falcons are second in the league in scoring at 3.2 goals per game. They’ve scored three or more goals in six straight games and eight of the last nine contests. The Falcons prefer to play a puck-possession game in the offensive zone, generating scoring chances off the possession.
Defiel has a 1.16 goals-against average and a .964 save percentage in six games against BG. Lake Superior is 2-1-3 in those games. BG scored just five goals in four games against Lake Superior last season.
“The game plan is probably what we want to be all the time,” Bergeron said. “We want to enter the offensive zone with some type of purpose and a plan. Then, we want to be a second- and third-effort team, so it’s not one shot on net and done, and then chasing (the puck) down. We want to make sure we get to those pucks. We want to make sure it’s one shot and turns into two and three, and you’ve got some sustained (offensive zone) time.
“Lake Superior makes its very difficult. It’s business as usual, but if we’re not good with those details, in particular, our offensive-zone game, it’s going to be a difficult weekend for us to create. We’re not going to change, but we’ll emphasize we have to be good at these things.”
POWER PLAY: The Falcons have scored a power-play goal in seven of the last nine games and in 10 of the last 14 contests. BG’s power play started the season scoring just twice in its first 33 chances.
“I like the (offensive) zone time, and the overall chances we’ve been creating,” Bergeron said when asked what he liked about the power play of late.
PK: The Falcon penalty-killing was 11 of 11 against UAA and is 25 of 29 in the last six games. Three of those four goals came Nov. 19 at Alabama-Huntsville.
SERIES: BG is 80-72-12 all-time against Lake Superior, but the Falcons are only 31-39-6 in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The series dates back to the 1970-71 season.
The Falcons are 5-3-2 against the Lakers in the WCHA. They were 1-1-2 against the Lakers last season, including a split at Lake Superior.
ON THE ROAD: The BG series marks Lake Superior’s only home games during a 12-game span. The Lakers haven’t been at home since Nov. 4-5, and have played their last three series at Tech, Ferris and Michigan.
Lake Superior is at Bemidji State next weekend and then starts the second half with a non-league series at Nebraska-Omaha.
STATS: Lake Superior leads the league in scoring at 3.43 goals per game, but has scored just 13 goals in its last seven games.
The Lakers also are sixth in goals allowed (3.07) and power-play conversions (13 of 86, 15.1 percent), and tied for sixth in penalty-killing (83.8 percent , 63 of 80).
Lake Superior is the league’s second-most penalized team, averaging 17.4 minutes per game. BG is fifth at 14.4.
LEADERS: Sophomore Mitch Hults is Lake Superior’s leading scorer with 16 points. He has five goals and 11 assists in 14 games.
Junior forward J.T. Henke has four goals and nine assists in 14 games, while sophomore forward Diego Cuglietta has seven goals and five assists in 14 games.
Sophomore defenseman Owen Headrick has two goals and 10 assists in 14 games, while junior defenseman Aidan Wright has an on-ice rating of +10 and has blocked 28 shots.
(Updated) MCLAIN: Falcon junior forward Mitch McLain was named the Player of the Month by the WCHA Thursday. McLain had five goals and 11 assists in November, and has seven goals and 10 assists this season. He leads the team in both categories.