Read the full NAHL Weekly Release.
It’s been nothing but a happy New Year for the Owatonna Express, which has rattled off four straight victories to start 2009, including two last weekend against divisional foes.
“Every game for us is like a playoff game right now,” said Express head coach Pat Cullen, whose team improved to 18-15-1 on the season. “If we want to climb in the standings, we have to continue to win at a consistent rate.”
The Express opened its weekend with a 3-2 win over the Albert Lea Thunder on Friday. Stephen Carew struck for two goals in the victory, with Dmitry Lugin notching the game-winner. Between the pipes, goaltender Jason Horstman made 34 saves.
Carew potted two more goals the next night as the Express knocked off the Alexandria Blizzard, 6-3. Dan Cecka added a goal and three assists in the win, and Horstman made 26 saves.
“The (holiday) break came at a very good time for us and it seems like we’re playing with more of a purpose right now,” said Cullen. “We're also finding a way to win some of the close games we had been losing.”
Carew has been playing with a purpose for much of the season. The 20-year-old from Eden Prairie, Minn., now has two goals in each of his last three games and leads the team in scoring with 35 points.
“He’s not only been a very good player for us, but a great leader,” Cullen said of the Air Force Academy recruit. “He makes big plays for us at critical times and is one of those players that, as a coach, you never appreciate enough.
“I don't know where we’d be without him. He’s that important to what we’ve done to this point and we’ll lean on him as we move forward.”
And Horstman, a 19-year-old from Faribault, Minn., has been getting the job done at the other end, winning his first three starts of 2009 for a team still searching for an identity in net.
“He played very well last weekend and stepped up when we needed one of our goalies to do so,” said Cullen. “If we’re going to continue to have success, goaltending will be of the utmost importance.”
On the defensive end, the Express has been making strides thanks in part to the continued progress of Nick Carson, Jake Sloat and Tim Smith.
Offensively, Zach Vierling, Cory Thorson, Tony McDonald and Chris Bournazos have been delivering on a consistent basis in addition to Carew.
Owatonna has also been aided by the arrival of Cecka, a skilled, speedy forward who played his first two games with the Express last weekend after being picked up in a trade with the USHL’s Indiana Ice, as well as the return of forward John Kruse, who was sidelined with an injury since early October.
“He’s also had an immediate impact,” said Cullen.
For Cullen, who guided the Southern Minnesota Express to back-to-back Robertson Cup Championship Tournament appearances in 2006 and 2007, he’s satisfied with his team’s first-half performance considering the program started from scratch, both on and off the ice, coming into the season.
“It went about as we expected since we can't forget the fact that we’re a brand-new team [the Southern Minnesota Express relocated to Michigan to become the Motor City Machine],” said the coach. “It takes time for guys to figure out the way we expect things to be done and to understand as a team what it takes to win on a consistent basis.
“Our expectations for the second half are to continue to improve on a daily basis, as well as try to climb in our divisional standing and be ready for the playoffs.”
And that means getting a more consistent effort in the goaltending department and learning how to win close games, according the Cullen.
“Every night we need to compete hard and play good team defense,” he said.
With Carew the only Express player committed to a Division I program for next season, Cullen anticipates more college interest in the New Year, especially for Thorson, Smith and Tony McDonald, all of whom will compete in the upcoming NAHL Top Prospects Tournament which begins on Sunday in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Those are three very talented and hard-working players,” said Cullen. “I'm very happy they were chosen and hopefully they’ll catch the eyes of some scouts. All three have the ability to play at the Division I level and hopefully they’ll get the chance.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Top Prospects Tournament selection Kyle Pichler scored a pair of goals as the Avalanche dropped two games to Fairbanks.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Niko Kapetanovic and Danny Wood scored for the Thunder in its only game of the weekend, a 3-2 loss to Owatonna on Friday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Sean Kenny and Jon Swavely each recorded a goal and an assist as the Blizzard fell to Owatonna on Saturday, 6-3.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: In the IceDiggers’ only game of the week on Thursday, Mike DeGrazia tallied a pair of goals in a 5-1 win over Traverse City.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Air Force recruit David Bosner made all 33 saves in the Bobcats’ 2-0 win over North Iowa on Friday, marking his fourth shutout of the season.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Top Prospects Tournament selection Jon Waggoner recorded a hat trick, including the game-winning goal, in the Ice Dogs’ 7-3 triumph over Alaska on Saturday.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Top Prospects Tournament selection Ryan Lemke connected for three goals and four assists as the Brown Bears fashioned a 2-1 record against Wenatchee.
MAHONING VALLEY PHANTOMS: Forward Jordy Trottier, a Top Prospects Tournament selection from Bozeman, Mont., has committed to Bentley College (Atlantic Hockey) for next season.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Garrett Ladd, a Top Prospects Tournament selection, notched a goal and two assists in the Rangers’ 4-1 victory over Traverse City on Friday. He was also a plus-3.
MOTOR CITY MACHINE: Top Prospects Tournament selection Josh Bussell, Motor City’s leading scorer, figured in all three Machine goals in its 6-3 loss to Mahoning Valley on Saturday (two goals, assist).
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: A plus-3 last weekend, Jack Paul, a Top Prospects Tournament selection, leads the league with a plus-25. “Jack is one of the most skilled forwards in the league and has made huge strides this season,” said North Iowa head coach Jeff Crouse. “He just keeps delivering for us.”
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Goaltender Jason Horstman picked up two wins for the Express last weekend, turning aside 60 of 65 shots. He has won his last three starts.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Top Prospects Tournament selection Nick Curry recorded both game-winning goals, including the overtime marker on Saturday, in the Jr. Blues’ two-game sweep over Wichita Falls.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: California native Soren Jonzzon put home two goals and an assist as the Bandits forged a 0-0-2 record against Topeka.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Bryce Merriam was named the NAHL/GDI Goaltender of the Month for December after fashioning a 5-0-2 record in eight appearances to compliment a 1.75 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Nate Urbaniak connected for two goals, including the game-winner, in the North Stars’ 3-2 win over Marquette on Saturday. He was also a plus-3.
TEAM USA: Emerson Etem and Jerry D’Amigo each recorded two goals in the Under-17 Team’s 9-1 victory over Mahoning Valley on Sunday.
WENATCHEE WILD: Michael DiPuma and DJ Vandercook (game-winner) each potted two goals in the Wild’s 6-2 victory over Kenai River on Wednesday.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: In his only game of the weekend on Saturday, defenseman Matt Shost recorded two assists in the Wildcats’ 4-3 overtime loss to Springfield. He was also a plus-2.