Back in November, not many expected the Albert Lea Thunder to be playing for anything meaningful in March, but the resilient Central Division club is doing everything in its power to prove the naysayers wrong.
Winners of three of its last four games, including two victories last weekend, the Thunder trails the fourth-place North Iowa Outlaws by only three points for the fourth and final playoff spot in the division. What’s more, four of Albert Lea’s eight remaining games are against the Outlaws.
“The guys want to prove something and definitely have a chip on their shoulder,” said Thunder head coach Chuck Linkenheld, whose team improved to 14-31-5 on the season. “The playoffs truly represent and mean something for this team.”
The Thunder opened last weekend with a 5-2 victory over the Outlaws on Friday. Derek Docken (two assists), Matt Johnson (two assists) and Alex Niestrom (goal, assist) all fashioned two-points games, and goaltender Nikofor Szczerba turned aside 22 shots.
The next night, Anthony Iaquinto tallied a pair of goals and Zack Smoot struck for the game-winner and an assist as the Thunder downed the Kenai River Brown Bears, 4-3. Between the pipes, Joe Rogers made 18 saves.
For the Thunder, which faced its fair share of uncertainty earlier in the season, both on and off the ice, its push for a playoff position is generating plenty of optimism and excitement.
“We’re amazed with all the adversity this season that the core guys still here have remained so resilient,” said Linkenheld. “I just think it’s that hockey-player chip we all have in our brain; we all have something to prove, a reason to play and we know greener pastures are ahead.”
Regardless of how Albert Lea’s postseason chips fall, Docken, a 19-year-old from Northfield, Minn., has a bright future ahead of him. The University of Alaska-Anchorage (WCHA) recruit has been a mainstay on the blue line for the Thunder this year with 18 points (two goals) and a plus-19 rating.
“Derek logs the most minutes and plays in all situations,” said Linkenheld. “He continues to play solid games with consistency.”
Iaquinto, a 20-year-old from Brighton, Mich., has also showcased plenty of promise this year. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder who has 12 goals in 21 games with the Thunder is even flashing signs of pro potential.
“He’s an offensive threat every time he touches the ice,” said Linkenheld, noting that a few NHL scouts have visited Albert Lea to see Iaquinto play. “His physical style creates space for everyone, including himself.
“Anthony is known as a tough player, but should be known for his ability to put the puck in the net, too. It’d be great to see him get a shot at proving himself in a pro camp.”
The Thunder is also getting continued production from second-year forward Niko Kapetanovic, the team’s leading scorer with 32 points. The 20-year-old from North Prairie, Wis., will play a major role in Albert Lea’s postseason push, according to Linkenheld.
“He has a skill set and offensive ability we need every night, and he has experience in this league and knows where the net is,” said the coach. “Niko's play down the stretch will be one of the major factors in whether or not we make the playoffs.”
As will the play of the Thunder’s goaltending tandem. Linkenheld has all the confidence in the world in Szczerba and Rogers, a University of Notre Dame (CCHA) recruit, both of whom are giving his team a chance to win every night.
“Practices for these guys have been unreal,” said the coach. “It’s been tough to decide who to start each night, but, if someone gets on a roll, we’ll roll with them.”
The Thunder’s roster has seen a lot of turnover during the year and it’s equated into competitiveness for playing time up and down the lineup, something that’s fueling the team’s recent surge.
“The best thing for a coach can also be the toughest thing, and that’s deciding who’s (sitting) in the stands each night, “said Linkenheld. “We have a battle going on all week for playing time on the weekend.
“Everybody wants to be here now. Anyone who wanted to be somewhere else is and the ones who remain are competing everyday, on and off the ice.”
Which has helped make for stronger, healthier organization from head to toe, one Linkenheld plans to build on in Albert Lea in the coming years.
“We’ve been more involved with the community, we’ve established a higher standard of performance, on and off the ice, and we’ve held players and staff accountable in all areas,” he said. “When you do these things, you’ll be more successful as a team, a business or as a person.”
The renewed culture is also rubbing off positively on the college front. In addition to Docken, Rogers and Kapetanovic, who plans on playing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (NCHA) next season, Linkenheld has high hopes for a number of his players, especially those in their final seasons of juniors.
“Albert Lea is close enough to attract both D-I and D-III schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin and we’ve seen a lot of scouts at our games each night,” said the coach. “I think the number of quality players, teams and coaches in our league, as well as our division, has benefited us.”
The Thunder will play its first two of their four remaining games against North Iowa this weekend, and it plans on making a statement right from the start.
“Both teams know how much those games mean,” said Linkenheld. “If I learned one thing about these players and this team, it’s that we won’t go away quietly and we’ll show up with every intention to win, regardless of a past most of us had no control of.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Robb Haider (Anchorage) connected for a goal and two assists as the Avalanche skated to a two-game sweep over Fairbanks. “Robb was solid all weekend and played an instrumental role on our success,” said head coach Dave Boitz.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Head coach Chuck Linkenheld is happy with the new blood that’s made its way into his lineup over the past few months. “A lot of the additions have boosted this team’s speed, grit and confidence,” he said.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Forward Alex Altenbernd (Moorhead, Minn.) struck for a goal and an assist in the Blizzard’s 4-3 overtime loss to Bismarck on Friday. He was also a plus-2.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Still in the North Division playoff hunt, the IceDiggers play three games this week, including a pair against fourth-place Motor City on Friday and Saturday.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Forward Tim Serratore notched a pair of goals in the Bobcats’ 5-2 victory over Alexandria on Saturday. He was a plus-3 for the weekend (a two-game sweep over the Blizzard). “When Tim is at the top of his game, he’s a defensively-responsible centerman who plays with an edge,” said head coach Byron Pool. “The intangibles he brings to the rink don’t always show up on the scoresheet.”
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Forward Justin Kirchhevel (Brookings, S.D.) put home three goals as the Ice Dogs skated to a 0-1-1 mark against Alaska.
JANESVILLE JETS: Goaltender Adam Miller (Long Grove, Ill.) stopped all 37 shots in regulation and overtime and seven of eight in the shootout as the Jets fell to Motor City on Saturday, 1-0.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Forward Johan Skinnars (Sweden) rang up three goals and two assists as the Brown Bears went 1-1-1. “Johan is the player all our guys wants to play with,” said head coach Oliver David. “He produces every night and anyone who plays with him reaps the rewards.”
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Goaltender Kevin Kissaw (Goodrich, Mich.) backstopped the Rangers to three wins last week, turning aside 82 of 88 shots. “He made tough saves look easy and he’s starting to play with lots of confidence,” said head coach Kenny Miller. “When he’s got it going, he’s one of the elite goaltenders in the NAHL.”
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Forward Billy Balent (Waterford, Mich.) registered a pair of goals and an assist in the Metal Jackets’ 6-1 triumph over Janesville on Friday.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: Defenseman Matt Blomquist (Blaine, Minn.) registered three assists, including one on Connor Gaarder’s (Edina, Minn.) game-winning goal, as the Outlaws doubled up Owatonna on Saturday, 4-2. He was also a plus-3. “Matt has been one of our most consistent players all season and is really starting to come into his own,” said head coach Garrett Strot. “He has the ability to be one of the top defensemen in the league next year.”
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Forward Nick Widing (Somerset, Wis.) connected for a pair of goals, including the overtime game-winner, in the Express’ 4-3 triumph over Kenai River on Tuesday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Forward Jared Rickord (Skokie, Ill.), a Bentley University (Atlantic Hockey) recruit, added to his team-leading point total (59) with a goal and two assists in the Jr. Blues’ 5-4 shootout loss to Texas on Friday.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Forward Ryan Belonger (Green Bay, Wis.) notched the game-winning goal and an assist in the Bandits’ 3-2 victory over Topeka on Saturday.
TEXAS TORNADO: Forward Shane Sooth (Canyon Country, Calif.) tallied two goals and two assists - he also scored a shootout goal in Sunday’s 3-2 victory - in the two games he played against Springfield. “Shane overcame being sick and stepped up and scored big goals when we needed them,” said assistant coach Jason Bloomingburg. “He was an offensive threat every time he stepped on the ice.”
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Forward Justin Kovacs (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.) put home a goal and three assists in the RoadRunners’ two-game split against St. Louis.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Forward Kyle Jean (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.), a Lake Superior State University (CCHA) recruit, rang up a goal and an assist as the North Stars went 0-1-1 against Marquette.
WENATCHEE WILD: Forward Shawn Pauly, who played in January’s Sherwood/NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, has committed to the Air Force Academy (Atlantic Hockey) for the 2011-12 season.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: The Wildcats’ annual “Jersey Off Our Back” auction, which supports the Children’s Miracle Network, raised $40,000 this year. The event was held on Feb. 26-27.