New season, new opponent: Tommies prepare for playoffs against Lakers 

St. Thomas captain Lucas Wahlin gets taken down in front of the Lake Superior State net during a game in November 2023 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

By Ryan Stieg 

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — The CCHA playoff season has arrived, and the St. Thomas men’s hockey team is sort of limping into it.  

The Tommies finished with the No. 2 seed and will host a first-round playoff series for the first time as a Division I program this weekend. However, they’re in rough shape going into the series as injuries have crippled their roster. 

Despite having a limited line chart last week, UST managed to lock down home ice with a 2-0 road win over Michigan Tech Friday, and forced a split with a hot Huskies squad. When asked about the weekend during Monday’s press conference, Tommies head coach Rico Blasi said he was pleased with how it went overall.  

“I thought Friday, we were really structurally good,” he said. “After the first period, we really clamped down and I think we had 20 blocked shots. (UST goalie Aaron) Trotter played well in net. We got the lead, which takes teams out of their structure and their game plan. So I thought we did a really good job. In terms of Saturday, we knew they were going to come out and push. I didn’t feel like our energy was bad. I thought our energy was actually in a good place. We had some really good chances, even at 1-0 and 2-0, 2-on-1 shorthanded. An empty net, we didn’t execute and then they just kept coming. They’re obviously playing for home ice. It’s Senior Night and the crowd’s behind them. So there’s probably a few factors that went into Saturday night, but overall, we needed to do a job and win a game to get home ice and we did that on Friday night.” 

St. Thomas’ Ryan O’Neill races toward the Lake Superior State net and tries to get a shot off on Lakers goalie Ethan Langenegger during a game in November 2023 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

UST has been bitten by the injury bug frequently since Christmas and hasn’t rolled a full four lines during its past two series against Bemidji State and Tech, so it hasn’t been easy. However, Blasi said he’s proud with how the team has come together during these hardships and fought through adversity.  

“I’ve said this numerous times, I love this team,” he said. “Our staff loves this team. They come to practice, they come to work every day. I feel like our culture is in a really good place. I feel like our trust level and our faith in brother is at a good place right now and continuing to build through this resiliency that we’ve shown and this adversity. It’s easy to be in culture when things are good. It’s easy to thank the Good Lord when things are going well, but it’s hard to thank the Good Lord when things are going bad. We’ve hit our fair share of adversity here and I’m proud of the way the guys have responded. Not only for our program, but for each other. The way they’ve played and the way they’ve responded to certain challenges, it’s not easy. I love this team and I love what they stand for. We don’t have all the bells and whistles. It’s all about what we do on a day-to-day basis for each other and for the program.” 

St. Thomas’ Mack Byers battles Lake Superior State’s Connor Milburn for the puck in the Lakers zone during a game in November 2023 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

The Tommies’ playoff opponent is No. 7 seed Lake Superior State, who only played one game over the weekend, a win over Ferris State. UST split its only series with the Lakers this year and might be at a bit of a disadvantage this week against a relatively healthy LSSU team. However, playoff time is when teams put it all on the line and the Tommies are pumped to be playing at home.  

“This is a really good hockey team,” Blasi said. “They play hard, they play well-structured. They really took it to us the second night here. Really good special teams, really good goaltending. They have the leading scorer in our conference (Jared Westcott). So there’s a lot of good things that they do. They’re a good hockey team. Second to seventh place, it could easily be flipped right now, and we’d be going to Lake State. This is a big time challenge for our program and a step for our program and we’re looking forward to the challenge.” 

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday in Mendota Heights. If necessary, a third game will be played at 6 p.m. Sunday.  

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