Talk about a homecoming celebration.
After being on the road for 20 straight days, which included eight games, the Fresno Monsters finally dropped the puck on their home schedule against Wenatchee last weekend.
And, with NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld in attendance, an enthusiastic crowd of 4,122 showed up at Selland Arena on Friday night, followed by 3,149 on Saturday.
“The town was very excited to have the Monsters back at Selland Arena,” said Monsters head coach Eric Ballard, whose team finished the weekend 0-1-1 against the Wild. “There’s a great amount of support here in Fresno for this team and it was great to see as many fans as we did.”
The NAHL’s first team to call California home, the Monsters began their season at last month’s NAHL Showcase Tournament before heading to Alaska for six games and Wenatchee for two. Despite all that time away from home - Fresno went 5-6-1 over that stretch - Ballard has few complaints; rather, he views it as a positive experience.
“It’s hard for anyone to be on the road that long, but it was great for our guys to get to know their teammates,” he said.
A good thing, considering Fresno boasts a green roster with only two players who have NAHL experience and three others with junior experience.
“It’s been a tough adjustment, but we’ve gotten better every week and will continue to get better,” said Ballard. “We’re see signs of progress and development each week and each game, but, again, it’ll be a process.”
With only one assist through 13 games he might not be one of the team’s top offensive players, but forward Derek Sutliffe has been one of the Monsters’ most consistent performers. He’s played an important role on the team on a number of levels, both on an off ice.
“He works hard everyday and kills a lot of penalties,” Ballard said of the 18-year-old from Las Vegas. “He's not a scorer, but what he contributes in other areas is invaluable to our team chemistry and makeup.”
Defenseman Tom Hilbrich, who played last season with the NAHL’s Alpena IceDiggers, has been a constant force on the blue line, according to Ballard, and first-year junior forward John Siemer, who leads the team in scoring with 12 points, and rookie defenseman Walker Hyland, who ranks second in team scoring (10 points), have made immediate impacts.
The Monsters also like what they have between the pipes in goaltender Louis Puig, another first-year junior player who holds a 3-3 mark in nine appearances.
“Louis has made it clear that he’s up for the challenge everyday and, right now, has become our No. 1 goaltender,” said Ballard.
The team also recently acquired hulking forward Cody Castro, who played last season and the start of this year in the Western Hockey League. The 6-foot-3 215-pounder from California is expected to make an immediate impact.
“Cody brings a ton of experience and leadership that this young team will need,” said Ballard.
The Monsters will get to enjoy more sleep in their own beds over the next few weeks as they host Dawson Creek for a two-game series this weekend before welcoming Fairbanks to town for three games a week later.
Ballard is counting on constant improvement from his team during that time.
“We’re young and skilled and we’re getting better everyday,” said the coach. “I'm excited to see where we stack up against the rest of the league when we get some more confidence.”
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Australia’s Wehebe Darge picked up three goals last weekend as the Avalanche split a two-game set against Fairbanks. The 19-year-old forward has five goals on the year (13 points).
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: Coming off of a three-game sweep over Kenai River, the Rage hopes to continue its winning ways this weekend as they head to Fresno for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Denmark’s Alexander Jensen, 20, put home two goals and an assist as the Ice Dogs went 1-1 against Alaska last weekend. The forward has 12 points on the season (three goals).
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Losers of four straight games, the Brown Bears are hoping to right the ship this weekend with a pair of games against Fairbanks on Friday and Saturday.
WENATCHEE WILD: Goaltender Brandon Jaeger, a 20-year-old from Champlin, Minn., came up big in the Wild’s two-game sweep over Fresno last weekend, stopping 46 of 51 shots and four of five in Saturday’s shootout.