Say what you want about the Owatonna Express, with four of its last five games decided in overtime or a shootout, it certainly has a flare for the dramatic.
After a 4-1 victory over Austin on Thursday, the Express engaged in a pair of shootout games in a home-and-home series with Alexandria. After falling on Friday in the first contest, 4-3, it rebounded the next night to pick up both points in a 3-2 win.
“I’m not sure how many more OT and shootouts my nerves can handle, but it’s made for some exciting and entertaining hockey,” said Express head coach Chuck Linkenheld.
The points propelled the Express - 10-7-3 on the season - into a first-place tie in the Central with Bismarck. Coulee Region sits only one point behind the frontrunners.
“There isn’t much that separates the teams in our division, so you have to be on your game every night,” said Linkenheld. “I think our overall focus has been more consistent especially at crucial times; we’re controlling our emotional peaks and valleys better.”
One Express player who’s stepped up in more ways than one is Lawrence Cornellier. Not only can the 18-year-old find the scoresheet - Cornellier has 15 points after 20 games - but he’s also deft at killing penalties and there’s no quit in his forechek.
The Machesney Park, Ill., native notched two goals and an assist in regulation and the only goal of the shootout in the Express’ win on Saturday.
“The way he’s playing, he’ll catch the eye of more Division I scouts very soon,” said Linkenheld. “He’s first on the puck and wins battles, and he’s tenacious and relentless. Add the skill and shot to the mix and we’re sure glad he’s on our team.”
Forwards Chris Bournazos (seven goals for 15 points) and John Haeg (eight goals for 12 points) have both used their speed to create offense all year, while, in the face of injuries, blueliner Joe Adams, who started the season in Texas, has provided stingy defense in his own end.
Linkenheld also praised the play of his younger players who, he says, continue to make strides every time they step on the ice.
“We’ve given many opportunities and shown confidence in a large group of rookies and it’s starting to pay off,” said Linkenheld. “It’s not obvious who we’re going to dress each game; the guys are making my decisions very difficult, which is a good sign.”
Along with netminder Charles Williams, young Brock Kautz, a 16-year-old from Rochester, Minn., has impressed between the pipes.
With a 3-2-1 record on the season to go along with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage, Linkenheld sees a bright future in store for his young keeper.
“He’s calm, focused and manages the game well,” said the coach, who also noted that Kautz is attracting the attention of a few Division I schools, along with a handful of other players. “Brock has given his team the opportunity to win each time he’s played, along with keeping us in games when we struggle.
“Charles has quality junior experience and I’m sure his experience has influenced Brock. They’ve made a good tandem.”
And although he’s not complaining about the five-point weekend the Express architected last weekend, Linkenheld believes his team is capable of even more.
“We set our standards much higher as a team to be satisfied with where we are,” he said. “It’s a competitive division and a long season.”
CENTRAL DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ABERDEEN WINGS: Forward James Rudi Pino, 20, collected three goals, including the game-winner in Saturday’s 6-1 triumph, and an assist in a two-game split with Bismarck. The Vancouver, Wash., has 15 points (seven goals) through 16 games.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Brandon Zurn, an 18-year-old forward from Mahtomedi, Minn., who started the season in Fresno, put home his first two goals of the season in the Blizzard’s 4-3 shootout win over Owatonna on Friday.
AUSTIN BRUINS: James Dickinson, a forward from Knoxville, Tenn., came through with three goals last weekend as the Bruins lost a pair of games to Coulee Region. The 19-year-old has eight goals for 10 points through 15 games.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Tom Rizzardo, a defenseman, notched the game-winning goal and an assist as the Bobcats doubled up Aberdeen on Friday, 4-2. The 20-year-old from Highland Village, Texas, has five goals for eight points on the season.
COULEE REGION CHILL: Netminder Paul Moberg, 19, picked up two more wins in goal last weekend - his eighth and ninth of the season - as the Chill skated to a sweep over Austin. The Forest Lake, Minn., allowed seven goals on 77 shots in the two games.