New day rising for hockey

The Lawrence Hockey team had their best season ever this winter, and finished third in the regular season and at the MCHA Tournament.
Justin Eckl

The Lawrence Hockey team had their best season ever this winter, and finished third in the regular season and at the MCHA Tournament.

In a game replete with last-second heroics, Lawrence hockey defeated Milwaukee School of Engineering to conclude the MWC Championships last Sunday. The Vikings led 3-2 in the third period when MSOE came back to tie the game. Less than a minute later, MSOE scored again to put them up 4-3. The Vikings grew desperate with just over a minute left and pulled junior goalie Jim Pfeiffelman for an extra skater. The plan worked, and with 48 seconds left in the game, senior defenseman Mike Vernon scored his second goal off an assist from sophomore defenseman Andy Gillies to send the game into overtime.

The winning goal was scored by freshman standout forward Ryan Blick, who lit the lamps for two goals on Sunday, giving the Vikings a 9-19 record for the season.

After the game, senior captain and All Conference second team defenseman Stuart Manning attributed special significance to Sunday’s game: “The character of this team was determined in this game today. We played for each other. I really had so much respect for those guys today.” Echoing similar sentiments, freshman forward Andy Rozanski said, “This was the best game we played as a team all year.”

Earlier on Friday night LU took on and beat fifth seeded Northland College 3-2 in a play-in game to see who would advance to the semi-finals on Saturday. Freshman forward Andy Rozanski scored the first two goals for LU, with Northland tying the game at two late in the second period. Freshman forward Ryan Blick scored a power play goal with 52 seconds left in the second period that put Lawrence ahead for good.

To the unmitigated, a 9-19 record may seem like another disappointing year for Vikings hockey, but not entirely. Lawrence was 4-20-1 last year, and half of this year’s roster was comprised of freshmen players inexperienced at the college level. This statistic is in itself deceiving, because to many the freshmen have been the key factor in turning this team around. Last year was the first year LU Hockey recruited nation-wide, and the work has paid off in 4 of the top 10 scorers on the team being freshmen. “The freshmen did a great job this year,” said junior goaltender Jim Pfeiffelmann, adding, “There were some growing pains, the beginning of the season was rough, but they came back and did more than what could realistically be expected of them.”

This year’s freshmen crop, known for their uncanny sense of confidence, in retrospect had fewer doubts, “We did a lot better than people expected. Basically, the freshmen went in there and scored and that’s what we had to do,” said freshman forward and All Tournament team member Blick.

The seniors still anchor this team, but in the future the pressure will be born by the current underclassmen to succeed in a conference largely dominated by Marian College. The dominant theme amongst the Vikings is that this year represents a change for the traditional low regard Lawrence hockey garners. Often, notions of “building” and “growing” are bandied about on any young team, but there is the genuine feeling here that the huge talent that arrived this year will realize its potential early on. “I think we’ll be one of the top two in the Conference, looking to be number one. We’ll surprise a lot of people next year,” said Pfeiffelmann.

Doubtless, the four exiting seniors will be missed next year, but not without confidence that their leadership position will be well contested. Reflecting on the team, senior captain and All Conference team forward Tom Conti stated, “This is my fourth year and every year it gets better. I’m just glad I was part of a building team that will be a fierce competitor in the coming years.”

LU Hockey unmistakably has better young talent than it has in years past, but they too are aware of their inexperience. Blick said, “The seniors led by example, and the underclassmen did what needed to be done. Conti’s leadership was huge. We were all astonished by how phenomenal of a leader he is.”

In large part, any success this team accumulates can be accredited to Coach Dave Ruhly, who came to Lawrence in the summer of 1999. “Dave’s a great guy who makes big calls. He brought in a lot of young guys who had to make the change to college hockey,” said Conti. Rozanski added, “[The assistant coaches] Chris and Nick did a great job, too. All three made practice fun, and that’s a lot more important than people think.” Indeed, there’s no reason to believe that with Coach Ruhly’s success with recruiting thus far, LU Hockey has anything less in store for it than a championship caliber team.