Even Bill McDonald is surprised by the Lakehead Thunderwolves hockey team’s early success.
The first-year head coach has guided Lakehead to a No. 7 national ranking and the first-half OUA West division lead as the club sports an 11-3-0 record.
Not bad for what was expected to be a rebuilding campaign.
“I never thought we’d be ranked, but I guess it’s a feather in their caps as we go forward worry about ourselves and our next game,” McDonald said during the holiday break.
It’s safe to say that not many people would have expected such a strong start after Lakehead was outscored by a 17-3 margin in their three preseason tune-ups.
A large part of the success can be attributed to their first-half matchups.
As the Thunderwolves go forward, their schedule will be decidedly more difficult than the one they played during the first two months of the campaign, where the teams they played had combined first half records of 33-62-10..
The total win-loss record of Lakehead’s second-half opposition is 63-39-7, with only one of those clubs holding a ledger below .500 during the first half.
The Thunderwolves will be looking at eight of their final 14 games coming against teams that are second through fifth in the division, including road dates against archrivals Windsor Lancers and Western Mustangs.
“We see the schedule and if you look at the win-loss columns we’re going to be playing the harder teams now but we’re going to take it one game at a time and worry about ourselves,” McDonald said.
“Of the games our (first-half) opponents played against teams we’re going to face in January we can run with them from what I’ve seen on tape.”
He knows there are aspects of their game that have to be improved to maintain the level of success down the home stretch.
One area of concern McDonald expressed was the team’s play on special teams when they have a man advantage, something that was visible during their non-conference sweep of the Laurentian Voyageurs this past weekend.
The power play unit was stifled on Friday before showing flashes of promise in recording a pair of goals on Saturday.
“There’s lots of stuff we haven’t even had a chance to work on,” he said.
“I know the power play hasn’t been great, but we haven’t even worked on it because we’ve spent a lot of time working on defensive zone coverage and team play.”
That concerted defensive focus has been highly visible for the Thunderwolves, as they have allowed the fewest goals in their division and tied for the fewest in the conference. They have conceded only 31 during their first 14 contests.
That strong effort comes despite having to ride rookie netminder Justin McDonald for a significant portion of their slate after presumed starter Jeff Bosch went down with a preseason knee injury.
Offensively, junior forward Mike Hammond has been the team’s leading point getter. Hammond, the only one of last year’s top-five scorers to return, has received help from rookie forward Cody Alcock who leads the team with 10 regular season goals.
McDonald has based the offence around keeping things simple by taking care of the defensive end and attacking in transition.
“We get two or three things and do them right, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” he said.
“Our philosophy really is to commit to defence but when we have the puck we attack on offence.”
Injuries have been a concern, and the weekend provided relief before suffering a big loss.
Lakehead saw the return of forwards Carson Dubchak and Brennan Menard but will be without spark plug forward Trevor Gamache potentially for the remainder of the season after he reportedly broke his wrist in the Friday matchup with Laurentian.
The Thunderwolves off the second half against the Ryerson Rams with a weekend series at the Fort William Gardens.
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