By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
If fans had a word to summarize the Alexandria Blizzard last season, it would have been… dramatic. After an average first half of last season, the Blizzard found themselves hovering around the .500 mark, but something magical happened on the way to the playoffs. The Blizzard were playing some of the best hockey of any team in the NAHL when it mattered most, from January through March.
Of the 30 games the Blizzard played as the calendar turned to 2011, they only lost seven of those in regulation coming down the stretch. The Owatonna Express, who had led the division most of the way, were fading. The Coulee Region Chill had stayed steady and gained ground along with the Blizzard on the Express. By the final day of the regular season, the script was set. An Alexandria win over defending Robertson Cup Champion Bismarck and a Coulee Region loss at home against Austin would give Alexandria the division Championship. And, that’s exactly what happened.
In the last regular season game of his junior hockey career, forward Michael Pieper scored two minutes into overtime and the Blizzard were Central Division Champions. “We were only in 1st place one night the whole year and it happened to be the final night after the regular season,” said Blizzard head coach Doc DelCastillo. “It was pretty magical and a testament to how balanced our division really was. You just never knew from one night to the next who could beat who.”
The playoff series that would follow with Bismarck would be one of legend. “It was deceiving in the playoffs because although we were the #1 seed and Bismarck was #4, the top four teams were so close, I felt like anyone could have won the Central Division playoffs,” said DelCastillo. The first four games of the five-game series were fairly one-sided, two for Bismarck and two for Alexandria. With game five back in Alexandria, it seemed in the cards for the Blizzard to move on to the division finals. However, it was not to be as the Bobcats showed their playoff experience, topping the Blizzard in the final game, 2-1. “It was a classic game and we ran into a hot goalie and a guy that will be playing Division I hockey next season, but we knew it could have gone either way and any of the four teams in the division would have been a good representative in the Robertson Cup,” said Del Castillo.
It has Alexandria set up to defend their title this season in a division that will have a similar look, but will include Minot, while Coulee Region moves to the new Midwest Division. “I don’t expect things to be different this year. The division is very deep and anyone can challenge for the title,” remarked DelCastillo.
As for who will help the Blizzard get back to the top, look no further than local Alexandria resident Thomas Williams. Williams, 19, not only registered 44 points last season, but he led the Blizzard by a large margin in plus/minus with a +26 mark, which was in the top 10 in the entire NAHL. “I think that Williams is a guy who understands the game and understands how to play in both ends of the ice,” said DelCastillo. Park Rapids, Minnesota resident Tucker Coborn is another player who DelCastillo believes can make a difference for a team that will be a mix of young and old.
“I believe we are going to be a big, tough team to play against. We should also be a very balanced team from top to bottom, but we lost a lot of scorers, so there is going to be plenty of opportunity for guys to step into those roles and show what they can do,” said DelCastillo.
One of the team’s big needs is going to be the goaltender position. Jake Williams, who carried much of the load for the Blizzard last season appearing in 45 of the 58 Blizzard games, has aged out and recently announced he will be heading to Mercyhurst College to play NCAA Division I hockey for the Lakers. Minnetonka, Minnesota native Jacob Meyers played 20 games for the Blizzard last season and comes into this season with two years left of junior eligibility.
DelCastillo was encouraged by the tryouts, but remarked that his top five to six scorers would be gone from last season, so it will be imperative that the Blizzard address their offense if they want to repeat as division champions.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Amarillo Bulls.