There wasn’t a hotter team in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) coming out of the holiday break than the Owatonna Express, which won seven games in a row and eight overall dating back to Dec. 19.
But late January and early February hasn’t been as kind to the Express, which holds a marginal 1-3-1 record since snapping that momentous surge.
“We were on a roll because we were doing the simple things,” explained Express head coach Chuck Linkenheld, whose team holds a 24-15-5 record overall. “Lately, we haven’t been mentally disciplined enough to win games, but the positive is that, now, we know the difference between winning and losing.”
Despite hitting its recent rough patch, the team still very much in contention for a Central Division title - its 53 points is one fewer than front-running Coulee Region - thanks to timely contributions from up and down the entire lineup.
“The vets have provided great leadership in good times and bad, and the younger players have been proving they’re learning from the experience they’ve been given in all situations,” said Linkenheld.
And it hasn’t hurt that goaltender Charlie Williams has been rock solid behind the pipes. The 18-year-old from Canton, Mich., was in the nets for every game during Owatonna’s recent winning streak and, on the season, holds a 19-6-4 mark to compliment a stellar 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
“Through it all, he’s been the most consistent,” said Linkenheld.
The coach has also been pleased with the progress of forward Willie Faust and defensemen Jordan Krebsbach and Branden Carney. Their versatility at their respective positions has given the team a needed boost.
“We’re confident putting them in any and all situations,” he said.
What’s more, the Express welcomed a familiar face back into the fold recently - one that’s expected to give the club’s offense a shot in the arm. Forward Jake Youso, who put up 22 goals for 44 points for Owatonna a year ago, has rejoined the team from the United States Hockey League.
Linkenheld is expecting big things from the Holy Cross recruit.
“Jake’s a mature leader, on and off the ice, and it’s nice to have another vet who can really play,” the coach said of the 20-year-old from International Falls, Minn. “The team is happy to have him back.”
Recent struggles aside, the Express is confident it can put together another winning stretch through February and March as it fine-tunes for the postseason.
“The mood is professional, but fun,” Linkenheld said of the team’s locker room. “We believe if you work hard, act professional and have fun, you’ll be successful.”
And for the Express, which plays three games against the Chill this weekend (two at home, one of the road), keeping things simple will key a fruitful finish to the season.
“Down the stretch, we’re preaching the basics,” said Linkenheld. “Execute the basics, make winning plays in losing situations and don't worry about the things we can't control.”
CENTRAL DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ABERDEEN WINGS: Forward CJ Pullar, 20, connected for the game-winning goal in the Wings’ 3-2 victory over Bismarck on Thursday. The Elk River, Minn., native who started the season with Fresno has seven goals and six assists in 24 games with Aberdeen. The Wings welcome Alexandria to town this weekend for a two-game series on Friday and Saturday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Alexandria picked up one point in its only game last weekend, dropping a 4-3 shootout decision to Owatonna on Saturday. Mercyhurst College recruit Nardo Nagtzaam, the Blizzard’s leading scorer with 55 points (22 goals), picked up two assists in regulation. Alexandria heads to Aberdeen this weekend for a pair of games against the Wings on Friday and Saturday.
AUSTIN BRUINS: Forwards Alex Tesensky and Jordan Greenberg scored the Bruins' only goals of the weekend in a pair of losses to Coulee Region. Austin, which is 14 points behind Aberdeen for the division's fourth and final playoff spot, travels to Bismarck for a two-game series on Friday and Saturday.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: In his first two games with the Bobcats since being acquired from Texas, forward Donald Olivieri tallied two goals and an assist in two victories last weekend. He was also a plus-4. The 19-year-old from Philadelphia has 10 goals for 27 points in 36 games overall this season. Bismarck welcomes Austin to town for a two-game set on Friday and Saturday.
COULEE REGION CHILL: The division-leading Chill extended its winning streak to four straight games with a two-game sweep over Austin last weekend. Forward Micky Knox, a 20-year-old from Warroad, Minn., put home four goals in the two games, including the game-winner in Saturday’s 3-1 triumph. Coulee Region plays three games against Owatonna this week - one at home on Friday and two on the road on Thursday and Saturday.