Hovering around the .500 mark for much of the first half of the season, the Alexandria Blizzard had anticipated finding the win column with a little more regularity in the early goings.
But, with plenty of games still left on the schedule, the team is confident it can vault itself in contention for a Central Division title.
“We’re definitely a little disappointed with our start, but we also know we can make huge strides in the second half,” said Blizzard assistant coach Jeff Crouse. “A couple good weekends in a row early will put us right where we want to be heading down the stretch.”
The Blizzard, which holds a 14-13-4 record - good for 32 points and a fourth-place position in the Central standings - points to its youth as part of the reason for its growing pains, but is pleased with how its newcomers are acclimating to the NAHL.
“We’re happy with our progress,” said Crouse. “We’re a lot younger than we anticipated being, so it’s going to take a little more time, but we also know what we did last year in the second half (22-9-3) and look to be even be better this year.”
The Blizzard split a pair of games with Coulee Region last weekend before doubling up Bismarck on Wednesday, 4-2. In those three contests, veteran forward Steve Zierke led the offensive charge with four goals and two assists.
The 20-year-old college hopeful from Brooklyn Park, Minn., ranks second in team scoring behind Mercyhurst College recruit Nardo Nagtzaam with 35 points (19 goals) after 30 games.
“Steve’s really picked up his play and had been a leader on the ice for us,” said Crouse. “He goes about his game with hard work and feistiness to get the job done.
“If he keeps doing what he’s doing, I definitely see him playing D-I next year, but he has to keep the pedal to the metal and not let up.”
One player who’s flown under the radar all season long has been Alexandria’s own Thomas Williams. The 18-year-old forward has points in his last 12 games (seven goals, 10 assists) - he’s totaled 24 points through 29 games overall - and trumps the entire team with a plus-14 rating.
“Thomas is what you call an honest player,” said Crouse. “He works his tail off everyday and it’s finally started to pay off for him. He’s very good around the net and had a good shot. He’s not the biggest or fastest guy on our team, but hard work and heart will get the job done more often than not.”
The Blizzard is also counting on a boost from a couple of new faces, namely defensemen Joe Rubbelke, who was picked up from the United States Hockey League, and Kevin McMorrow, a Blizzard tender who joined the team from high school. Both are expected to strengthen Alexandria’s defensive corps.
In addition to Williams, continued production from forwards Tucker Coborn and Jordan Nelson will also key the Blizzard’s success, according to Crouse, as will the play of goaltenders Jake Williams and Jacob Meyers.
“If we can get those two going, we think they can be a very dynamic combo,” Crouse said of his netminding tandem.
And, along with more consistent efforts, the Blizzard is banking on a few more victories at Alexandria’s Runestone Community Center, where the team is an underwhelming 4-7-3 on the season.
“We need to get going at home,” said Crouse, whose team play a home-and-home series against the Bobcats this weekend. “We were very good at home last year (18-10-1) and we have the majority of our second-half games at home, so we need to get that swagger back and make it a hard place to play.”
CENTRAL DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ABERDEEN WINGS: Paul Prescott, a 19-year-old forward from Oakdale, Minn., notched the only goal of the shootout in the Wings' 3-2 victory over Bismarck on Saturday; forwards CJ Pullar and Cory Ward scored in regulation. Aberdeen heads to Austin this weekend for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday.
AUSTIN BRUINS: Forwards Chase McDonald and Jack Walsh tallied third-period goals to rally the Bruins to a 2-2 tie against Owatonna on Saturday (Austin lost in a shootout). The Bruins host Aberdeen for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday before traveling to Coulee Region on Sunday.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Bismarck had its six-game winning streak snapped with a 3-2 shootout loss to Aberdeen on Saturday. The night prior, forward Nikolaj Rosenthal, a 19-year-old from Denmark, recorded a pair of goals, including the game-winner, in the Bobcats’ 3-1 victory over the Wings.
COULEE REGION CHILL: Forward Ben Jaremko struck for two goals, including the game-winner, in the Chill's 6-2 triumph over Alexandria on Friday. The 19-year-old from Elk River, Minn., now has three goals on the year after 30 games (10 points). Coulee Region welcomes Owatonna to town for games on Friday and Saturday before hosting Austin on Sunday.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Goaltender Charles Williams stopped 74 of 77 shots in regulation and overtime and five of six in Saturday’s shootout as the Express skated two a two-game sweep over Austin. “Charles is the main reason we’ve won four straight (games),” head coach Chuck Linkenheld said of the 18-year-old from Canton, Mich. “He’s been consistent and we’ll ride his success.”