Following consecutive seasons with a declining win total, the Lake Superior State Lakers are starting 2018-19 off on the right foot after a 10-22-4 campaign a year ago.
The Lakers opened the season with a sweep of Merrimack College on Oct. 6 and 7, as five players had a multi-point weekend. Senior Diego Cuglietta and junior Max Humitz each contributed a pair of goals. Junior Brayden Gelsinger had a goal and an assist and freshmen Jacob Nordqvist and Pierre-Luc Veillette each had two assists.
Now in his fifth season with the program, head coach Damon Whitten is looking to improve the 43-90-18 career record with which he entered the year. There’s certainly potential in Sault Ste. Marie, with a top six that’s been around the block, a growing defense, and solidarity in the crease.
Upperclassmen Cuglietta, Gelsinger, and Humitz are proving to be the go-to forwards. During an exhibition series with Nipissing University over the weekend, Cuglietta had two assists, Gelsinger had a goal and two assists, and Humitz chipped in two goals and two assists.
But Whitten has expressed the need for more consistent offense and that starts with freshmen Nordqvist and Veillette. The duo made an immediate impact on the scoresheet in the season-opening sweep of Merrimack. They continued to play dependable hockey and combined for a goal and an assist in the series with Nipissing.
“We also think we have the ability to get more offense from the back end,” Whitten told USCHO.com prior to the season. “The guys [defensemen] showed it in some spurts last year. With four freshmen in the lineup on the backend, it was difficult at times, and so I think we can take a step up on our backend and get more contributions and do a better job offensively.”
The experience gained as freshmen and the confidence of two sweeps through four games — regardless that two were exhibition — should help the sophomore-laden defense be more assertive in joining the rush and pushing the offense.
Offense also heavily depends on a reliable power play. Through the Lakers’ four contests, they’ve scored seven power-play goals on 27 chances, operating at 25.9 percent. While that number is likely to decline, it’s a good sign after capitalizing on just 17.7 percent of chances on the man advantage last season.
The early power-play success has helped the team elevate its goals-per-game average to 3.25 after scoring at a rate of 2.11 goals-per-game during the 2017-18 effort.
Improvement doesn’t happen through fixing just one area, however. While the offense appears to be settling in nicely, the Lakers will need to keep track of their own zone.
Circling back to the valuable experience gained from four freshman defensemen last season, their attention to lifting the offense can’t reflect on the other side of the ice. The defense needs to be held accountable and be cautious of pinching, holding the blue line, and protecting from odd-man rushes.
“The guys returning really played the bulk of our minutes and in all situations, power play, penalty kill, and five on five,” Whitten told Mike Barrett of LSSULakers.com. “We still don’t have a senior in our back-end group, so there’s a little bit of youth there…we’ve got an experienced group that can play. I think they have the chance to be a real strength of our team.”
While the Lakers boast two capable goalies, they relinquished an average of 33.5 shots against per game last season, compared to firing just 24.5 shots-for per game. Through the four games played this year, they’ve flipped those numbers, allowing just 24.75 shots against per game while putting up 33.5 shots-for per game — skewed by a 54-shot game against Nipissing.
Again, while exhibitions don’t count, it still replicates the sense of confidence and belief within a team. Should that trend continue, even to a lesser degree, the game will come a little easier for the goaltenders, senior Nick Kossoff, and sophomore Mareks Mitens.
Kossoff went 7-12-2 with a 2.99 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 26 games last season, but he is generally accepted as one of the better goalies in the WCHA. Mitens had a rough freshman season with a 3-10-2 record, 3.46 GAA, and .892 SV%.
Last season, Mitens and Kossoff were first and second in February save percentage, respectively, as the Lakers strung together a 4-2 record to close the season on a high note. That high note suggested they would be ready for 2018-19.
Best Save Percentage, February— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) February 22, 2018
.983 Mareks Mitens LakeSuperiorSt
.967 Nick Kossoff LakeSuperiorSt
.962 Jake Kupsky, Union
.960 Stefano Durante, AIC
.960 Mat Robson, Minnesota pic.twitter.com/OHOKKxrVxJ
Sure enough, the increasingly confident group brought that high note right into the new season with instant success. A strong start to a fresh season goes just as far for skaters as it does goalies. Though an aggressive conference stands in the way, Whittens’ team has the pieces to continue to surprise this year.
It’s a bye week for the Lakers before heading south to take on WCHA foe Alabama Huntsville for a pair of games on Oct. 26 and 27 — which will be streamed live right here on FloHockey. The Lakers went 1-1 against the Chargers last season.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.