A hold on second place in the Central Division standings coming out of the holiday break isn’t a bad place to be situated, but it’s not good enough for Owatonna Express head coach Chuck Linkenheld.
He’s certainly not disappointed with his team, which sports a 16-12-4 record, good for 36 points and three fewer than division-leading Bismarck, as it begins its second-half push, but admits he’s not happy, either.
“I do think we’re headed in the right direction and the guys are coming together, but I think we need to dial it in a bit more if we want to reach our goals,” said Linkenheld.
The coach has been pleased with the season-long efforts of forward Andy Singerhouse, the team’s captain. Linkenheld calls the 20-year-old from Hudson, Wis., who joined the team in October, “a great find,” both in terms of talent - he has 23 points (three goals) through 28 games - and character.
“Andy’s a good leader and, on the ice, he generates a lot of chances for us,” said Linkenheld.
And, according to the coach, he’s also generating interest from Division I schools, along with forward Nick Widing, a 19-year-old from Somerset, Wis., who ranks second on the team in scoring with 23 points through 30 games.
“Nick’s a solid, strong guy who can play in traffic and get hard shots to the net,” said Linkenheld. “He’s so tough to knock off the puck.”
Linkenheld also praises the efforts of his defensive corps, namely Marian Fiala, Beau Burgau and Brandon Carney, a rookie whom the coach credits for making significant strides by “keeping the game simple.”
“Our veteran d-men have been steady enough to allow us to spoon-feed ice (time) to the younger defensemen, which we think will help us down the stretch this season and in the years to come,” said Linkenheld.
A second-half surge also means continued production from its top forwards, including Air Force recruit Ben Persian, the team’s leading scorer, Chris Bournazos and Lawrence Cornellier, as well as its goaltending tandem of Charles Williams and Brock Kautz.
Deeper-line forwards, among them Schylur Adams, Willie Faust and Darren Lapic, are growing accustomed to the day-to-day rigors of the NAHL, according to Linkenheld, which bodes well for the Express.
“They seem to be finding their stride, and I think the key to winning in this league is having your role players accepting and executing their roles every game,” said the coach.
As the second half begins, Linkenheld expects everyone - players and coaches alike - to execute the specific tasks presented to them to the best of their abilities. That recipe, he says, will help lead to success.
“If we, as coaches, provide the depth, the right players and we, as a team, set our standards high and execute to those standards, we’ll have a shot at being a division leader,” said Linkenheld.
“Right now, the teams above us are executing in key situations and have realized their roles better than we have, and that’s resulted in key victories that we need in the second half to be a successful playoff team.
“The tough part comes in February, because there won’t be room for everyone.”
CENTRAL DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ABERDEEN WINGS: Aberdeen opens the second half of its season with three games this week against Bismarck (Thursday and Saturday) and Alexandria (Friday). The Wings are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: The Blizzard, which entered the holiday break picking up three of four points over Aberdeen, begins the second half its season with three games this week against Coulee Region (Thursday), Alexandria (Friday) and Austin (Saturday).
AUSTIN BRUINS: Austin rang in the holiday break on a high note, knocking off Coulee Region on Dec. 18, 5-3. Newly acquired Swedish defenseman Christian Folin, a 19-year-old Bemidji State University recruit, picked up a goal and an assist in the win.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: The division-leading Bobcats (39 points) have won five games in a row, including two against Owatonna to head into the holiday break. Bismarck plays a home-and-home series against Aberdeen this week on Thursday and Saturday.
COULEE REGION CHILL: Forward Conner Gaarder, a 19-year-old from Edina, Minn., has registered points in his last five games (five goals, three assists). He has 11 goals for 28 points through 27 games.