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Peaking for the playoffs
March 7, 2008
By LINDA BOUVET, LSSU Sports Information Director
It's no coincidence that the 2007-08 Lake Superior State hockey team hit its stride as its three seniors began playing the best hockey of their careers.
Forward Dan Eves leads the Lakers in points with nine goals and 15 assists, and has 4-8--12 as the team has enjoyed a 6-3-3 record during its last 12 games. Jason Blain, who has three points in his last three games, has strengthened his line since moving from right wing to center in January. Justin Gutwald is one of only two upperclassmen on the blue line, and he is part of a defensive unit that has dramatically improved over the course of the season.
"It's interesting," Eves said. "We might have the worst record since I've been here. At the same time, this might be the best team we've had. The team is gelling. It's a slow process, and it comes with experience. But this program is in better shape now than it was when I came in. I think it's better than last year even though our record doesn't show it. And we have virtually the same exact team coming back."
The Lakers' progress, especially from a team defense standpoint, is striking. When they played Northern Michigan in late November, the Lakers were in the midst of a 12-game winless streak and giving up an average of 4.2 goals per game against Central Collegiate Hockey Association opponents. In their last 10 games, they are 5-2-3 and allowing only 2.4 goals per game.
Blain noted that the Lakers remained true to their goal of improving every week even when they didn't measure up to their own expectations during the first half of the season.
"All season long we could see we had the potential to do good things," he said. "It was just a matter of building confidence and showing we could compete with all of the teams in this league. We still have room to improve, and that will be our goal during the last few weeks.
"Expectations were high at the start of the season," Blain continued. "Then we were faced with some adversity, and we learned a lot from that. Everyone stayed focused on improving, hoping that we'd start playing at our best at the right time of the season."
Eves, Gutwald and Blain are three very different players who will all leave LSSU with a success story to tell. Gutwald began his personal journey as a walk-on who rarely dressed for games, and he is now a veteran contributing consistently. He did not crack the lineup as a sophomore, then appeared in 23 games as a junior, including the last 16 at forward due to John Scrymgeour's season-ended injury. He has played in 29 of 34 games this season, all as his true position, and scored his first career goal at Michigan State on Jan. 4.
"It's been a dream come true to play for Lake Superior State," Gutwald said. "I watched them when I was growing up playing minor hockey in Detroit, and they were a powerhouse team in the 90s. To play four years here is unbelievable. Sometimes I still can't believe I played four years here. I talked to other schools (during the recruiting process), but my total desire was to play at Lake Superior."
Did LSSU live up to his expectations?
Blain, who has a 4.0 grade point average while majoring in finance and economics, is LSSU's nominee for the CCHA Scholar-Athlete Award. On college campuses throughout the nation, there are students who maintain perfect GPAs, students who are a husband and a father, and students who play Division I athletics. It's a major undertaking to be a student and live up to any one of those three challenges. Blain awes his teammates and coaches by successfully managing all of them.
"It's nice to still be involved in hockey and to also have a family, and to have my family be able to watch the games here," said Blain, who began his collegiate career at Northeastern University, where he was named the team's rookie of the year in 2005. He transferred to LSSU midway through the 2005-06 season and has played the last two seasons for the Lakers.
"Coach Roque told me to treat this like a professional player would," Blain said. "They have families, and they're able to do it all...I will definitely have to start working soon after I graduate. For me, it's all about managing my time well. (Daughter) Ava has been healthy, and (wife) Areka does a lot at home. She really helps me and allows me to concentrate on school and hockey."
"When Jason talks, everybody kind of stops and listens," Eves said. "He's not the type of guy who would BS you...It's inspiring to see him handle his situation."
"It was kind of a big shock," Eves said. "I came in when I was 18 and I had no idea what to expect. There were a lot of older guys on the team. There are still a lot of older guys on the team compared to me. They helped me mature as a person. I still feel like I have a long ways to go, but I've come a long way from where I was when I came in."
As an assistant captain in 2007-08, Eves has jumped at the chance to be a visible leader on and off the ice. He has enjoyed a breakout season, nearly doubling his point total from last year and providing a physical presence at both ends of the ice.
"I tried to be a leader the last four years, but there were so many older guys and I didn't want to step on anyone's toes," Eves said. "I want to do my best to contribute to the team and influence other guys to do their best. We have a lot of underclassmen, and I need to set that example."
Lake Superior State Men's Ice Hockey