Lake Superior State has players on its roster from nine countries, five states and three Canadian provinces.
In a strange season, the team from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and those players from all over the world came together in Mankato, Minn., to beat a rival from the Upper Peninsula and win the program’s first conference championship in 26 years — and possibly the last championship ever awarded by its conference.
Junior forward Ashton Calder — one of two players on the Lakers’ roster from Sault Ste. Marie — had a hat trick, while sophomore forwards Brandon Puricelli (Ellisville, Mo.) and Dustin Manz (Vanderbilt, Mich.) and junior defenseman Jacob Nordqvist (Gothenburg, Sweden) all had a goal and an assist as the second-seeded and No. 17-ranked Lakers beat rival Northern Michigan 6-3 at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center to win the WCHA postseason championship and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“Ashton … it’s very fitting,” Lakers head coach Damon Whitten said. “We’re Japan, Sweden, Latvia, Germany, and on and on, and here our home-grown talent scores a hat trick to move us on and get us back to the NCAA tournament.
“We need the Ashton Calders in Sault Ste. Marie and the Upper Peninsula for our program. He’ll inspire the next generation. It’s great to see, when I go to my son’s practices, the kids there talk about Ashton Calder and (fellow Sault Ste. Marie native) Chase Gamelin, that’s who they want to be, so it’s great to see him come through tonight.”
The Lakers have flown under the radar all season, as conference regular season champion Minnesota State, as well as fast-starting Bowling Green, Bemidji State and Michigan Tech were the more talked-about teams when it came to earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
Whitten’s team now doesn’t have to worry about the tournament selection committee choosing them. The Lakers’ playoff victories against Alabama Huntsville, Bemidji State and rival Northern Michigan secured that spot.
“This was a big night for our program,” Whitten said. “Over in our neck of the woods and across college hockey we have a very storied program, a great tradition and our fans expect to win. They got spoiled for many years with tremendous players and coaches and teams. It’s hard to put into words.
“My first few years here were tough. We asked our players when we recruited them to believe in what we want to accomplish, hang more banners, to see that come to fruition is very special.”
The Lakers (19-6-3) scored twice in each period and built a 4-0 lead before the Wildcats (11-17-1) got on the board. Manz set the tone just 1:20 into the game when he crashed to the net and popped a loose puck over the glove of Wildcats freshman goalie Rico DiMatteo.
Ten minutes later, Puricelli made it 2-0 when Manz hit him with a cross-ice pass for a one-timer. Nordqvist and Calder scored 2:39 apart midway through the second to make it 4-0.
Northern Michigan got one back in the final minute of the second, a power-play goal by A.J. Vanderbeck to pull within 4-1 after two.
“It’s hard after you lose, for all of us, coaches, players, everybody,” Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny said. “Tonight was just one game in our playoff journey. I don’t know that a lot of people outside of our room thought we could advance to this point.
“We came here, played arguably one of the best teams in the country, Mankato hadn’t lost at home all year, and we found a way to advance.”
The Wildcats twice cut the Lakers lead to two goals in the third period, but Calder capped his hat trick with an empty-net goal with 2:36 to go to seal the win and the Lakers’ first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1996.
“It means a lot,” Calder said. “Obviously when I chose to come back home (to play college hockey), I was excited and knew there was a lot of work to be done. I’m just happy to do it with this group.
“This is big for our town. Back in the day, Lake State was a national championship contender. I’m just happy to be a part of trying to bring that back.”
LAKE SUPERIOR STATE 6, NORTHERN MICHIGAN 3
Northern Michigan 0-1-2—3
Lake Superior St. 2-2-2—6
First period — 1. LSSU, Dustin Manz 2 (Brandon Puricelli 7, Jacob Nordqvist 11) 1:20. 2. LSSU, Puricelli 8 (Manz 5, Jack Jeffers 7) 12:02. Second period — 3. LSSU, Nordqvist 3 (Miroslav Mucha 9, Arvid Henrikson 1) 10:50. 4. LSSU, Ashton Calder 13 (Pete Veillette 12, Louis Boudon 11). 5. NMU, Andre Ghantous 10 (AJ Vanderbeck 13, Michael Van Unen 11) 19:14. Third period — 6. NMU, Vanderbeck 14 (Alex Frye 6) 3:05. 7. LSSU, Calder 14 (Veillette 13, Lucas Kaelble ) 11:04 (sh). 8. NMU, David Keefer 2 (Tim Erkkila 5) 15:52. 9. LSSU, Calder 15 (unassisted) 17:24 (en).
Shots on goal — NMU 6-10-12—28; LSSU 8-13-9—30. Goalies — NMU, Rico DiMatteo (L, 7-6-1; 24 saves-29 shots); LSSU, Mareks Mitens (W, 14-5-3; 25 saves-28 shots). Power-play opportunities — NMU, 1-for-2; LSSU, 0-for-1. Penalties — NMU, 1-2 minutes; LSSU, 2-4 minutes.