Gielczyk: Manistee Ending the Year on a High Note

After snapping an 12-game losing streak with a 7-0 shutout of the Mid-Michigan Storm on Friday, Jan 26, the Manistee co-op hockey team has gone 3-0-1 in its last four games and goes into this weekend’s Northern Michigan Hockey League tournament in a far better frame of mind.

Not to say that the Chippewas (4-12-1), who won the league title in 2015, have been hanging their heads throughout their season-long sked. Far from it, in fact. They’ve had no trouble putting the puck in the net.

But, they’ve struggled to keep their opponents from doing the same. Part of the problem has been their penchant for taking penalties, and having to expend a great deal of energy on the penalty kill while limiting their own offensive chances as a result.

That’s changed in Manistee’s last four or five games, as the Chippewas have cleaned up their act and stayed out of the box, which has allowed them to keep their best players on the ice, thus improving their scoring chances.

In their last four games, the Chippewas have scored 29 goals while allowing only six. The only blemish on their record over that stretch was a 2-2 tie with Grand Haven, and in last Saturday’s 9-1 crushing of Mount Pleasant six of their goals came on the power play.

“We work on (the power play) every practice for the last 15, 20 minutes,” Manistee coach Jim Foley said. “Our power play is kind of unique, because our defense is not playing up on the defensive line.

“They’re the ones down in front of the net, muscling the opponents’ defensemen around and trying to screen the goalie. Our guys with the hands are the guys up on the blue lines. Our guys with the muscle are the guys at the net, and those are usually defensemen. It has paid off.”

Junior forward Josh Fitzgerald has not been on the ice for any of the Chippewas’ last three wins. He’s been serving a four-game disqualification. Foley is hoping that Fitzgerald has learned a lesson and can keep his temper under control, and not take some bad penalties. If not, Foley says he’ll have to sit because the Chippewas can’t afford those kind of penalties.

Especially now, as the playoffs draw near and it’s one-and-done.

Manistee hasn’t lost since coach Jim Foley changed the lineup around. None of the Chippewas’ original defensemen are on defense any more.

Perhaps the most significant change was putting No. 2 goal scorer, Mason County Central senior foreign exchange student Oscar Saarinen back on defense. Saarinen is 6-foot-5 with a seven-foot wing span.

“He’s got great hands, and there’s not a whole lot that can get by him,” said Foley. “When he goes into the corner, he’s going to come out with the puck. Anybody in front of the net is not going to get a free pass with him.

“That’s been a huge bonus for us. J.T. (Walunas) and Barry (Seymour III) are a couple of guided missles up front. So, it’s been a good change.”

Manistee senior foreign exchange student Mathias Eriksson is the team’s leading goal scorer this season with 22, and he also has 23 assists. Saarinen, a senior foreign exchange student at Mason County Central, has scored 20 goals and assisted on 22 others for 42 points.

Senior goalie Raymond Schwass of Manistee High School has been the team’s only goalie since Manistee High junior netminder Rocco Staszczak suffered a concussion three weeks ago in practice and has been on the shelf.

“I think not having anyone to fall back on has actually helped him,” Foley said. “He knows he’s it, and there’s no one else. That’s actually pushed him to be the goalie I knew he could be. He’s been solid.”

The Chippewas will play Petoskey in the tournament’s first semifinal on Friday night. Manistee lost to the Northmen, 9-3 on Saturday, Jan. 13 in a game originally scheduled for the West Shore Community Ice Arena in Scottville, but moved to the Wexford Arena in Cadillac at the last minute because of a power outage.

Senior forward Nodin Jackson has 10 goals to lead the Northmen, while senior forward Logan Smith is second on the team with nine. Petoskey is coming off a 5-2 loss to the Grand Traverse Bay Reps.

“Everybody on the team thinks we’re undefeatable right now,” Foley said. “You want that confidence right now. I think we’re in a really good place right now.”

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at ggielczyk@jackpine.net for story ideas. 

Categories: Hockey