Re-Entering the Limelight
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
For a decade in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, Lake Superior State was a college hockey force to be reckoned with. The team made the NCAA tournament 10 times, taking the whole shebang three times and finishing second once, winning their league regular-season title three times, and postseason four.
More recently, however, the school has had its share of on-ice problems, with just four winning seasons since in 1996-97, going a combined 86-292-69, with no CCHA titles or NCAA postseason appearances.
One could say the Lakers simply ran dry.
This year, however, after years of fits and starts, a youth movement has injected life into the program, raising hopes for the immediate future in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Wins against Ferris State, Western Michigan, Northern Michigan, as well as a tie with Minnesota-Duluth and a shootout loss to Miami has put LSSU at 6-10-4 (4-7-3-2 CCHA, good for seventh in the standings) at the holiday break.
Leading the way are sophomore Domenic Monardo, who has already eclipsed his first-year totals of 6-6—12 in 36 games with 8-10—18 in 20 heading into the holiday break, and freshman goalie Kevin Kapalka, who seized starting time from senior Brian Mahoney-Wilson, shutting out Ferris State in back-to-back games already this year and ranking among the national leaders in a number of statistical categories.
“The team is looking good,” Monardo said. “We’re in a great place with the freshmen, especially Kapalka; he’s been standing on his head for us. He came in and was going to have a chance to play, and he came in completely ready. I don’t think Coach (Jim) Roque had the idea as having him as the number one, but so far it’s been good for him and good for the team. He’s really been the backbone of our team.”
Kapalka, a 6-foot-1, 197-pound Mississauga, Ontario, native, has gone 5-5-3 this season, posting a 2.32 GAA and .925 save percentage.
But don’t crown him the savior — or the starting goalie — just yet.
“I wouldn’t say Kevin has taken over,” said Roque, who has helmed the team to their two most recent winning seasons in his five full seasons behind the bench. “He’s been playing more because Brian is having a tough-luck season. He’s missed games because of being sick snd some injuries and wasn’t even able to dress for a couple of games.”
Kapalka is the first to say that there’s no controversy among the goaltenders on the roster; in fact, they’re friendly off the ice. And during practices, Kapalka, Mahoney-Wilson, and freshman Niels-Erik Ravn push one another. In games, as well, Kapalka hasn’t hesitated to go to the elder goalie, whose 1-5-1 record on the season brings his career totals to 27-40-15, with a 2.94 GAA and .905 save percentage, for advice.
“In a shootout against Bowling Green, I asked for some info on players they might use,” Kapalka said. “I ask him for tips on rinks, what teams are going to do. It’s nothing really in-depth. We talk about tendencies — Bowling Green likes to shoot from everywhere, with Miami you have to watch out for that big line with [Carter] Camper, [Andy] Miele, and [Reilly] Smith.”
It’s helped, as CCHA foes have already seen him at his best. Witness a 4-3-3 record, 1.88 GAA and .940 save percentage in league games this season, the latter two ranking third and first in league play, respectively.
“I never really expected to play as well statistically,” he said. “I was expecting to play a few games, give [Mahoney Wilson] a rest when he needed it. We started the year off slow, but I’ve been in the net a bit more, and we’re looking better defensively as the season goes on. So far it’s been pretty good.”
Offensively, as well, things are looking up for LSSU. Despite a number of injuries that has forced every player on the roster to get game time, the trio of Monardo and seniors Rick Schofield and Will Action have combined for 17 goals and 44 points, with all on pace for career-high point totals — a renaissance fueled by the sophomore’s coming out party.
Monardo, the 5-11, 182-pound forward from Oakville, Ontario, has exploded for a half-point per game jump in production. Last season, he went seven straight games without a point three times; comparatively, this season he’s gone pointless just seven times total, and not once in back-to-back games. He attributes his stability to continued work with Richard Clark at the Athletes Training Centre in Mississauga, which has helped to produce countless NCAA and professional hockey players.
“He trained me to be good (midget) AAA player, then a good junior player, and now I’m doing well in the college ranks,” Monardo said. “I just wanted to play well every game. I knew coming in I’d have more responsibility. Coach Roque having more confidence in me, playing with Schofield and Acton - with them it’s easy to get open, and they’ll get it to you.”
With 14 games still on the schedule after the holiday season, there’s a lot to look forward to, but also a lot for the Lakers to work on.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Roque. “We’re always trying to finish as high up as we can. We had a tough road schedule in the first half. The games are tough every night. We play in a tough league — everyone beats everybody. We need to get healthy. We need guys to pick up their production. My only real disappoinment has been on special teams.”
With holiday break on tap, there’s always the chance that players can lose focus or things can go inexplicably awry, but don’t think the buzz in the locker will mellow — they’ve still got an eye towards the coming weeks.
“Our biggest weekend is going to be against Michigan State,” Monardo said. The series opens up the second half of the season on January 14-15, and could have major implications going forward. “We did decently there last year, and this year it could dictate where our season goes. We knew we could make a good run, go to the Joe [Louis Arena in Detroit, where the CCHA Championship is held]. Over the last few seasons, we haven’t performed to team standards, but this year we have things in the right places and we could make a good push.”
Consider the notice served in CCHA that an emerging force is ready to make a big splash.