Looking to keep momentum: After big sweep of NMU, Tommies head to Bowling Green

St. Thomas captain and current CCHA Forward of the Week Lucas Wahlin (second from left) is mobbed by his teammates after his goal during a game against Northern Michigan Nov. 3 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

By Ryan Stieg 

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — Two weeks ago, the St. Thomas men’s hockey team were humbled a little bit and ended up getting swept at Bemidji State. Some teams might get rattled by this, but after a hard week of practice, the Tommies got back on track last week against Northern Michigan.  

The Tommies (4-5-1, 2-2 CCHA) showed some resiliency when the Wildcats tied the game in the third period Friday as UST answered back and emerged with a 4-2 win. The next night, the Tommies took it to NMU, notching a dominant 6-1 victory and completing an impressive sweep.  

“Last night, I thought we came out with a purpose and played on our toes and played to our identity,” Tommies head coach Rico Blasi said after Saturday’s night. “I thought the guys did a nice job coming out tonight. I thought they took it to us the first five minutes a little bit, but then we got a bounce and Manning had a nice goal on the breakaway. Then I thought we settled down from there and started making some plays and got opportunistic in the second period and that’s just the way the game goes. Last week, I said if you don’t show up on Friday, you’re probably not going to get the bounces on Saturday. The same is true when you show up on Friday, sometimes you get the bounces on Saturday.” 

St. Thomas’s Cooper Gay brings the puck into the Northern Michigan zone during a game Nov. 3 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

In an interview after the sweep, Tommies forward Mack Byers said that the vibe in the locker room is positive and he feels that the team is moving in the right direction.  

“We feel good,” he said. “We had a tough week of practice that got us ready for this weekend and I think this weekend was a big test for us. Whether you’re going to lie down and just let the season go by or are you going to stand up and do something about it. Obviously, we didn’t start our conference play the way we wanted to and kind of dug ourselves a hole, Now, we’ve got to get out of it and sweeping this weekend’s huge for that.” 

When asked during Monday’s weekly press conference if his practice strategy was going to change after a successful sweep, Blasi said he might even make it harder.

“No, we double down even more,” he said. “Preparation to me is the most important thing and if you’re prepared to play at a high level, chances are, you’re going to play at a high level. So practice is not going to change. In fact, it might get harder. And I think, it’s a responsibility on all of us to be ready to go and feel good about that practice. Feel good about the process and feel good about battling every day so that when you go in the locker room, you feel good about what you accomplished that day. Our culture is all about making sure you’re present then. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Let’s give our best today. Let’s focus on that and then we’ll worry about tomorrow when the time comes. But to me, on Monday, we don’t talk about who we’re playing on Friday. We talk about how we need to be responsible and what we’re doing on Monday and we just continue to do that throughout the week.”

St. Thomas’ Quinton Pepper tries to sneak the puck past Bowling Green goalie Christian Stoever during a January game in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

The Tommies need to put last weekend’s success behind them though as they face a team just as talented as Northern this weekend. Heading into the season, Bowling Green was seen as a conference championship contender with preseason CCHA Player of the Year Austen Swankler returning and a deep veteran lineup. However, Swankler left shortly after earning that award and transferred to Michigan Tech and some other off-ice drama lingered before the Falcons played their first game. BG did win that game, but then lost six straight including a surprising sweep at Division I newcomer Augustana. Despite those struggles, the Falcons are still a very formidable foe and getting two wins won’t come easy for the Tommies.  

Sometimes coaches make lots of adjustments to prepare for different opponents, but Blasi said that his team is going to mostly focus on its own game and its own identity.

‘Sometimes teams get caught up in making too many adjustments and they focus too much on something that might not be there,” he said Monday. “To me, you have to go and play your identity. Go and play with what we do best, and then we’ll make little adjustments as we go based on what Bowling Green does. They’re going to do the same thing. I know they’re well-coached. I know they’re battle-tested. They’re going to play hard. It’s a tough building to play in. It’s noisy and things happen quick. So we’ve got to go and be ready to play. And then as the game goes along, there’s going to be some subtle adjustments that we as a coaching staff will need to make and the players will need to perform on that point. But again, I think you have to go with the mindset that you’re going to play to your identity.”

Puck drop is set for 6 p.m. both Friday and Saturday in Bowling Green, Ohio.  

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