The Lakeland Union High School boys are back on the ice, looking to improve under second-year head coach Jake Suter.
One of the things they’re trying to work on is getting the offense going. Last season, the Thunderbirds scored 24 goals in 10 games. Those 2.4 goals per game ranked second to last in the Great Northern Conference.
“Last year we were a younger team, we’re a little bit older this year,” Suter said. “We’re going to focus on new systems in the offensive zone that assistant coach Gary Olson is going to be working on with the forwards and we’re excited about it.”
The Thunderbirds did put pucks in the back of the net a couple times. Against Mosinee on Feb. 1, the Thunderbirds scored four goals to win.
Then on Feb. 2, they scored three more goals to upset Tomahawk in a GNC Tournament fifth place game.
There will need to be more games like that to keep up with some of the heavyweights of the conference. Suter is in his second year of coaching and ready to take on the top teams.
“We’re not last year’s team, we’re not the team from three years ago — we’re this year’s team and they’ll build their own identity,” he said.
Northland Pines leads the way as on of the top teams. They went 7-0 in conference scoring 84 goals, while only giving up eight. Overall, they lost just three games all season.
Another team to look out for is Waupaca. They went 6-1 last season and were the only team close to Northland Pines in terms of goals scored. Waupaca scored 55 goals, but gave up 36 last season. Waupaca also had the top power play percentage, with eight goals in 28 attempts.
Some of the best players in conference returning to the ice are goalie Brett Wilkins, Gunnar Schiffmann and Brady Snedden from Northland Pines.
Wilkins allowed just four goals in 322 minutes of action, allowing just 0.63 goals per game. Schiffmann and Snedden combined for 20 assists in 14 games played.
Rhinelander brings back two of its three forwards on the top line, while Antigo brings back goalie Brody Bunnell.
Bunnel made 218 saves in 23 games for a save percentage of .905.
Last season, the Thunderbirds finished seventh in conference. They won one conference game in regulation and one game in overtime. Last year the strength came from their defense, allowing only 33 goals in 10 games.
“I hope it’s a our strong defensive play that leads to our offense, but until we get going we won’t really know what our biggest strengths are until we see it in the games and our guys build their own identity for this year’s team,” Suter said.
The Thunderbirds lost several players from last season, but gained a number of new freshman this season. Those freshman are goalie Max Masayesva, forward Brayden Warchol, forward Thomas McCumber, defender Brody Vizanko, forward Michael Kosmen and defender AJ Pairolero.
Second team all-conference Max Toijala returns with honorable mention Collin Guelcher for the Thunderbirds.
Toijala scored 39 points in 22 games last season — 20 goals and 19 assists. He led the team with four power play goals and a 1.77 points per game average.
As a goalie, Guelcher played 23 games for a 7-15-1 record. He made 751 saves for a 3.33 goals allowed average and a .908 save percentage. Toijala and Guelcher have set the foundation for this brand new season that includes the freshman.
“We got six new freshman. They’ve been skating with these guys since summer so they’re all ready,”?Suter said. “We already have a good base built for our team.”
Teag Wagner returns after scoring 17 points in 23 games a season ago. He scored eight goals and recorded nine assists. He was second on the team with three power play assists.
Kyle Schaub’s average points of 0.80 and 11 assists both ranked second on the team. He found the back of the net with five goals as well.
Combined with the freshman, the Thunderbirds have a nice combination of experience with youth.
“We lost six seniors, all an important part of the team, but we regained so many guys and gained six new freshman and really like the group we have this year,” Suter said.
The Thunderbirds’ first taste of action came yesterday in a scrimmage against Northland Pines.
Their first game comes tonight in a non-conference matchup against Chequamegon at the Lakeland Ice Arena. The puck drops at 7 p.m.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected]
com or [email protected]