When Lake Superior came into Yost Ice Arena to play the Wolverines in the first round of the CCHA Tournament last March, it was the ultimate David vs. Goliath battle.
Having just four wins and 38 goals in 28 conference games, the Lakers were only allowed into the tournament because the league had expanded to allow all 12 teams to compete. So they were given little chance against Michigan, which had won nine of its last 10.
But three minutes into the contest, the Lakers were up 2-0 and eventually hung on for a 4-3 win despite taking just 16 shots on goal. Michigan went on to win the series in three games, but the Lakers had left their mark.
“They battled their hearts out,” said sophomore forward Eric Nystrom, for whom the loss to the Lakers was his first postseason collegiate game. “Maybe we didn’t come ready to play. The same thing could happen this year if we don’t come ready to battle.”
Lake Superior returns to Yost for a weekend series tonight.
Lake Superior used to be the class of the CCHA, winning national championships in 1988, 1992 and 1994. The Lakers finished third in the CCHA in the 1999-2000 season, but have since fallen on hard times, finishing in last place the past two seasons.
But Frank Anzalone, who led the program to its 1988 national title, was re-hired as head coach last season in an attempt to revitalize the program.
The revival has yet to occur, as the Lakers are 0-6 in CCHA play, their worst start ever. The Wolverines have nine players that have accumulated more points than the Lakers’ leading scorer, Chris Peterson, and Lake Superior has scored just 16 goals in its first nine games.
But while the Lakers will not put the puck in the net very often, they make opponents work for every opportunity they receive. The Lakers have just a handful of players under 6-foot-2.
“They recruit to play that kind of style,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “They like to be a big, grinding, in your face team, and then try to capitalize on any chance that you give them.”
One area that’s going to be crucial to the Wolverines’ successes is the powerplay. The Lakers are third in the CCHA in penalty minutes per game but are last in the league in penalty killing percentage (.654). Although the Wolverines penalty kill has been a real strength so far this season, their powerplay has been lacking.
But with senior alternate captain John Shouneyia fully recovered from his injury, the forward, who Michigan coach Red Berenson has called the Wolverines’ “Quarterback” on the powerplay, should help Michigan take advantage of its extra-man opportunities.
But Berenson does not want to put too much pressure on Shouneyia to turn around the unit.
“I just want to make sure that Johnny doesn’t carry the powerplay by himself,” Berenson said. “These other teams know about John Shouneyia so they’re going to put some pressure on him.”
Sophomore forward Milan Gajic – who returned to the ice Tuesday after being suspended on Nov. 4 due to academic reasons – worked out with the powerplay unit in practice today and could see some playing time this weekend on the Wolverines’ fourth line.
Also Jason Ryznar may play on Saturday night as he is almost fully recovered from his second shoulder injury this season. But no matter what happens, this weekend should be a grind.
“Everything’s going to be a battle,” Nystrom said. “In front of the net is going to be a battle, in the corner is going to be a battle, every shot is going to be a battle.”