Chuck Linkenheld is the first to admit he didn’t know what to expect when he brought his Owatonna Express to last month’s NAHL Showcase Tournament.
But, after finishing with a not-so-spectacular 1-3 record, the team’s first-year head coach knew he needed to make some adjustments.
Enter goaltender Charles Williams, imposing defensemen Joe Adams and Beau Burgau, both of whom were acquired via trade from Texas and Janesville, respectively, and forwards Willie Faust, who was picked up from the USHL, and Andy Singerhouse, who returned to junior hockey after playing with Minnesota’s St. Thomas University (MIAC) last season.
The pay off? An about-face record of 3-1 since the Showcase, including a 2-1 mark last weekend over Central Division foes.
“I like the makeup of our team so far,” said Linkenheld, who guided the Albert Lea Thunder to a playoff appearance last season, the team’s final foray in the NAHL. “For some teams, the puzzle just doesn’t fit together quite right, but I like this team’s pieces and the puzzle. I think now we have a little bit of everything instead of a whole bunch of one thing.”
Williams has made a huge impact since his arrival. Along with a 3-0 record, including both wins last weekend, the 18-year-old from Canton, Mich., leads all NAHL goaltenders with a 1.33 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage.
Along with fellow netminder Brock Kautz, Linkenheld has nothing but praise for his keepers.
“The goaltending has brought a sense of calmness to the team the last four games,” said Linkenheld. “They both kept us in the game when we were struggling, both were our best penalty killers and both gave the team confidence and a chance to win.”
Singerhouse’s skill, smarts and leadership have also made a difference, according to Linkenheld, with the veteran line of John Haeg, Nick Widing and Chris Bournazos garnering serious college attention.
“They’re dangerous with the puck,” said Linkenheld. “All three spent the offseason getting stronger, faster and better conditioned.”
Returning forward Ben Persian, an Air Force Academy (Atlantic Hockey) recruit, has scored some timely goals early on, and defenseman Garrett Orhn, another player who joined the team from the USHL, has offered a big boost on the blue line, along with steady veteran Marian Fiala.
As for Linkenheld, he’s settling into his new coaching role with ease. He credits the entire Express organization for giving him all the tools necessary to build a winner.
“Owatonna has a tremendous group of volunteers and board members who have basically spoiled me,” he said. “My goal is to continue a winning tradition, continue moving players onto college and, in the process, fill the stands making the Express Owatonna’s team.”
And Linkenheld has his sights set high. Winning the division is at the top of his list with advancing to the Robertson Cup Championship Tournament the ultimate mission.
“But, as a staff, we make it our goal to place as many players as possible into the level of college hockey they’re capable of playing,” he said. “If we win while doing that, we’ll all be very happy.
“Right now, we’re only eight games in and I’m sure we’ll have many hurdles to overcome and many changes and challenges in front of us along the way.”
AUSTIN BRUINS: Forward Charlie Adams was the only Bruin to score in Austin’s two losses to Bismarck last weekend. The 18-year-old from White Bear Lake, Minn., has a goal for three points through seven games.
ABERDEEN WINGS: Forward Cory Ward, a 17-year old from Las Vegas, picked up his team-leading fifth and sixth goals of the season in the Wings’ 6-4 victory over Coulee Region on Saturday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Goaltender Jacob Meyers, 18, turned back all 20 shots he faced in the Blizzard’s 2-0 triumph over Owatonna on Saturday. In four appearances, the Minnetonka, Minn., native holds a stingy 1.71 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Matthew Gates, 20, picked up two goals and an assist in the Bobcats’ two-game sweep over Austin last weekend. The forward from Palatine, Ill., has four goals and four assists in nine games.
COULEE REGION CHILL: Goaltender Paul Moberg, from Forest Lake, Minn., has won his last four starts allowing only eights goals against. The 19-year-old’s latest victory came over Aberdeen on Friday (37 saves in a 4-2 victory).