APPLETON, Wis. — Desperation is a great motivator. Just ask the Lawrence University hockey team. Faced with being at the end of their rope, the Vikings tied a knot and held on.
Presented with a must-win game in the season finale, the Vikings did just that, win, and earned a spot in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
“This group has been extremely resilient,” Lawrence coach Mike Szkodzinski said. “There has been a lot of adversity to overcome over the past 10 to 12 months both on and off the ice. These guys have stuck together through thick and thin.”
Lawrence plays at St. Scholastica in a quarterfinal playoff game Wednesday, and the winner heads to either St. Norbert or Adrian for a two-game semifinal series this weekend.
The Vikings trailed MSOE by two points for the final playoff spot heading into the season finale last Saturday vs. Lake Forest. The Vikings rallied from two goals down to beat the Foresters 6-3 and kept alive Szkodzinski’s record of going to playoffs in every year of his Lawrence tenure.
“We’ve been building all year long,” said Szkodzinski, in his 10th season at Lawrence. “It took some time to find our identity. Since the break, the guys have really bought in to our team concept.”
It was like the Vikings turned the page after returning from the holiday break. Since restarting NCHA play in January, Lawrence is 6-5-3 against a tough league schedule despite missing multiple star players. Forwards Blake Roubos and Jake Kreutzer, the leading scorers from a season ago, have combined to play in eight games all season (all by Kreutzer). Stellar defenseman Brendan Vetter also has played in just eight games.
“It’s very easy to feel sorry for yourself when things don’t go your way,” said star forward Renato Engler, who leads the team with nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points. “However, (Szkodzinski) did a great job reminding us that we have to focus on what we can influence.”
No one has been more focused in the past two months than junior goaltender Mattias Soderqvist, who has been named the NCHA Defensive Player of the Week twice this month and three times this season. Soderqvist has posted a 2.69 goals against average and .929 save percentage in the past two months.
“Mattias is playing the best hockey of his career right now,” said Szkodzinski, an All-America goaltender in his playing days. “He is in control of his movements and seeing the puck real well. Part of that success is directly related to the D-corps and how consistent they have been over the past month.”
The Vikings are giving up 2.2 fewer goals per game during the second half of the season while scoring 0.6 more goals per game compared to the first half.
“I think we stepped up our game at the right time,” Engler said. “We kept getting better as the season progressed, and we are at our best going into the first round of the playoffs, which is what every team aims for.”
The Vikings’ offense has gotten a boost from its recent balance. Twenty-one players have registered a point in the second half, and 10 have at least five points. Freshman forward Nick Felan is second on the team in goals (7), assists (13) and points (20), with 14 of those points coming in the past two months. The Vikings also have gotten a nice boost from defenseman Brandon Boelter, who has nine assists in his last 14 games.
“They started believing more in themselves,” Szkodzinski said. “And that has translated into some real good hockey.”