Finlandia is undefeated.
It has been six years since that sentence could be written. Last Saturday the Lions defeated UW-River Falls to win their season opener - the first time the school has won its opener since the 2011-12 campaign. It was also the first time in school history Finlandia has beaten UW-River Falls.
It was the Lions' first road victory since February 14, 2014. That's five seasons ago.
Needless to say, last Saturday was big for Finlandia.
"It meant the world to our program, just to build the confidence," said head coach Joe Burcar, who took over the program late in the summer prior to the 2016-17 season. "For the returning guys, the four seniors, this was the first road win for them - going back to before my time. It meant a lot to different people, at different levels on our team."
It's best to dig deep inside the past few seasons in order to get the full scope of the win over the Falcons. Three years ago, Finlandia went 1-21-3, and two years ago it went 0-25. The zero-win season was Burcar's first year, after taking the job without a recruiting class. Last year - by certain statistical accounts and if you ask the players - was better, despite another ugly record of 1-23-1. Four seniors have been there through it all.
"This being my fourth year at Finlandia, it's definitely something special," said Alex Rezansoff. "Since my first season, we've had some tough years here at Finlandia. It was great to see some of the hard work pay off, especially in a season-opener against a great team like River Falls."
The Lions trailed 1-0 after the first but scored in the opening minute of the second period on a power play goal from Teddy Randell. The game stayed at 1-1 for most of that period until Finlandia found some magic in the final minute while short-handed.
The play was representative of a lot of things for the 2018-19 Lions. Kendall Bolen-Porter scored the short-handed goal to make it 2-1. Bolen-Porter is one of the seniors who has been through the grinder the past three seasons. He has great perspective on these types of games, where the Lions are in the game, playing hard, but can't finish. The goal was made possible because of a diving play from Dylan Paavola to clear the puck from the defensive zone. Paavola is a freshman and part of a recuiting class Burcar and the veterans are excited about. This recruiting class, plus the other players brought in by Burcar, are the missing piece Bolen-Porter, Rezansoff and the other vets have been waiting for.
To the third period went the Lions, in possession of a one-goal lead. On the road. Against a solid opponent. The returning players have seen this movie before. It was set up for Finlandia to fall 3-2 or 4-2, something like that. Certainly in a season-opener, UW-River Falls would come back and swipe the game, yes?
But that's not what happened. The Falcons came out hard and applied pressure, and the Lions handled it. They even pushed back, generating several scoring chances of their own and eventually scoring on the power play with 9:26 to play. That goal had a taste of the old and new as well, with sophomore Connor Hannon scoring and senior Rezansoff and freshman Cory Richardson assisting.
"It was a calm demeanor on the bench," said Burcar. "Heading into the third, we knew they were going to push us. We withstood the onslaught by them and found a way to push back. Scoring that power play goal in the third period was huge for us. It gave us the confidence that - they pushed against us, we pushed back and scored a goal. It kind of motivated us even more for the final nine minutes there."
Backstopping the win was goaltender Marcus Gloss, who played a huge roll with 29 saves. Gloss held UW-River Falls scoreless in the final two periods and his performance was good for the NCHA Defensive Player of the Week award.
"Very solid," was how Burcar described Gloss' play. "He controlled the game. He did a great job of understanding situations, controlling what he could."
It was just one win, but it matters in many ways for Finlandia.
It matters most because of the confidence the Lions have gained. Confident teams are tough to play against.
"The number one takeaway is confidence," said Burcar. "It's the first game of the year and it's nice to be rewarded, as opposed to a game in January. It just filters through the players. Our practices this week have been more competitive. It's a domino effect and it's definitely going in the right direction for us."
The win matters because of the way they won the game. They lost five games last year by one goal, including twice in overtime, and they lost five other games by two goals. In all those games, the score was close through the second period, only to see the opponent pull away in the third. Last Saturday, Finlandia won the third period.
"That's kind of our cry this year," said Burcar. "We want to be strong in that third period. It's got to be our best period of the game."
The win matters because it happened in October. Last year the lone win on the year came January 16th. It was the 17th game of the 25-game schedule. Play three months without a win and any player might naturally start to think, "Could 0-25 happen again?" The win over UW-River Falls and the lessons learned from it will be there all season long. The team's capabilities are known, right from the start. Bottle it up and forget about the 0-25 talk.
The win matters because of where it happened and who the opponent was. For most college hockey teams, it's harder to win on the road than at home. That has obviously been the case for Finlandia. But now they know they can win on the road, against quality opponents. Confidence in away games, under pressure, is something all teams covet. After four full seasons of long, losing bus rides back to Houghton, the Lions know what it feels like to return with a win.
They might just want to do it again.
FINLANDIA: STREAK SNAPPING
Finlandia is undefeated.