The Lake Superior State men’s hockey program has a storied history.
The Lakers have been to the NCAA tournament 10 times, reached the Frozen Four four times and have won three national championships.
Saturday, they’ll have a chance to accomplish something no Lakers team has ever accomplished: Win the WCHA postseason championship.
“It’s definitely a huge honor and a great opportunity for us,” Lake Superior State All-WCHA goalie Mareks Mitens said. “It’s been a while since Lake State has had a chance to play for a championship.”
Indeed, the Lakers’ last conference championship came in 1995. Their last NCAA tournament appearance came a year later, in 1996.
Saturday, they’ll get a chance to snap both of those droughts, and they’ll have the opportunity to do so against their most heated rival, Northern Michigan, in the WCHA postseason tournament championship game. Puck drop is set for 7:07 p.m. at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato.
Second-seeded Lake Superior State earned its way into the championship game with a convincing 4-1 victory against fourth-seeded Bemidji State on Friday night in Mankato. Northern Michigan, the No. 6 seed, earned its spot earlier in the day with an equally impressive 5-1 win against top-seeded Minnesota State.
“We’re excited,” said Mitens, who stopped 26 of 27 shots in the win against Bemidji State. “It will be a great battle. They’re our biggest rival and we’re looking forward to it.”
Friday’s victory was big for the Lakers not only because it lifts them into Saturday’s championship game, but also because it is the 1,000th win in program history.
“We haven’t talked about that a lot,” Lake State head coach Damon Whitten said of the 1,000 wins, “but we have such a pride and tradition, with five national championships (the Lakers won two NAIA national titles before moving to the NCAA). As a staff we’re certainly proud. … There’s a touch of validation to it, but we’re just enjoying being with this group of players. We have players from all over the world.
“We have a chance to do something special tomorrow night. That’s a chance to win a championship.”
The Lakers are 3-1-0 against Northern Michigan this season, but three of those games have gone to overtime.
“It’s been awhile since we played them,” Whitten said, “but they’re playing as well as anybody right now. Their top line is dangerous and threatening offensively. Their young goalie has come in and done a great job, as well.
“They’re a good team playing their best hockey of the year. It’s great to have that (Upper Peninsula) rivalry going on here in Minnesota. We’re only two hours apart from each other and we’re looking forward to a great championship game.”
Win or lose on Saturday, Lake Superior State continue to build its case to be selected for the NCAA tournament. Whitten said he believes the Lakers have done more than enough this season for the selection committee to put them in the 16-team national tournament field. A win against the rival Wildcats on Saturday would take care of that; the Lakers would earn the WCHA’s automatic bid to the national tournament.
“When you look around the country, the first-place and second-place teams in every league have been locks or nearly locks, according to a lot of media,” Whitten said. “We’re one of those teams.
“We’ve done this all season. We didn’t finish third or fourth. We finished second in a league that’s about as good as it’s ever been. We’ve lost back-to-back games only once this year, that was to Mankato. We only have four regulation losses, two of those to Mankato.
“We’ve been really consistent, really good down the stretch and here we are in the championship game. I don’t see a scenario where we can’t be in, and I hope the committee sees it that way as well.”