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Coach Jeff Crouse watched the Blizzard scrimmage during team practice last Tuesday at the Runestone Community Center. The team’s season begins this Saturday against Granite City in Sauk Rapids. (Echo Press photo by Blaze Fugina)

Blizzard hockey heads back to ice

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Blizzard hockey heads back to ice
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With less than seven seconds left in game four of the opening round NA3HL West Division playoffs last March, the Blizzard hockey team thought they had scored the game tying goal against visiting Granite City and would have the opportunity in overtime to force a game five.

But the goal was instead waived off by officials after an operator forgot to start the game clock, which continued running once the puck reached the back of the net. The season ended in controversy and Granite City clinched a 3-1 series victory.

This year the Blizzard is using the controversial end to the season as motivation to get themselves another shot in the playoffs. Head coach Jeff Crouse said he has heard the organization and their fans talk about the call throughout the offseason, and they are ready for another shot at playing the Lumberjacks.

“There’s a lot of fuel there, and returning guys know about that,” Crouse said. “They’re hungry, and they know what we need to do to get better, and when Granite City comes to town it will be a huge rivalry.”

The Blizzard will have the opportunity for revenge against Granite City immediately as they open the season at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday in Sauk Rapids. The Blizzard’s home opener is also against Granite City on Saturday, October 12 in Alexandria.

The players are eager for the opportunity to get back on the ice for a rematch of last season’s playoff series.

“It really helped in the offseason, too,” forward Mick Dhein said. “It just gives you a thought to work hard and try and make a difference. You hate to let a whole series like that be on one call and one official; you want to let the players decide the game.”

Alexandria native Garrett Skinner said a division rivalry has formed between the Blizzard and Granite City through their first season playing in the NA3HL. The rivalry is expected to continue in their matchups this year.

“I think there’s a little rivalry between us and Granite City because we’re close,” Skinner said. “The way the year ended last year and now we go there Saturday, and for our home opener we play them here. So it will be two big games when we play them.”

The Blizzard has eight players returning from last year’s roster. Crouse said the Blizzard team that will hit the ice on Saturday is a little younger than their team from last season.

“I like that,” Crouse said. “I like having younger players. They’re hungry, they want to get better and they want to be here.”

Crouse expects Skinner and Dhein to be among the leaders on the ice this year. Last season Dhein scored 13 goals and had 29 total points in 46 games. Skinner was second on the team with 14 goals and finished the season with 61 points in 48 games.

“I expect all my returners to really pick their game up and be leaders of this team,” Crouse said.

Besides the eight returning players, the Blizzard also expects contributions from their newest players. Crouse said the new forwards will provide increased skill on offense.

“We’ve got some pretty good talent. There are some guys who can move their feet,” Dhein said. “Obviously you’ve got to get acquainted with the style of play and new chemistry with people you haven’t played with.”

The Blizzard defense is the youngest portion of the roster, and overall the team is smaller than last year. This will place an emphasis on forwards to play with speed.

“Last year I think we hit a lot,” Skinner said. “This year I think we’re going to have a lot of speed up front and our forwards will be faster than last year.”

In their first season as an NA3HL team, the Blizzard finished in third place in the West Division with a 31-15-0-2 record for 64 points. North Iowa led the division with 85 points and Granite City was second with 76. This year the Blizzard is aiming for a higher finish in the six-team West Division.

“Our goal is to improve from where we ended up last year, being a first year team, putting together 33 wins and having a real good season,” Crouse said. “I thought toward the last half of the season we were one of the best teams in the division.”

The players have also set their sights on improvement. This season they hope to make a longer run in the postseason.

“We want to win the division,” Skinner said. “We played with North Iowa and Granite City every game.”

The Blizzard would also like to win the West Division championship to have a better chance of advancing to the NA3HL’s Silver Cup Championship, the league’s six team playoffs.

“If you place a little better in the division then you get a better draw and it’s easier to get to the whole NA3HL tournament,” Dhein said.

RUNESTONE IMPROVEMENTS

Improvements have been made to the replay system that will be used during Blizzard home games at the Runestone Community Center this season.

Business Manager Matt Johnson said the team has a new replay system with multiple angles. Last year the Blizzard started using a replay system in the playoffs. After a positive reaction from fans they added multiple camera angles.

Blaze Fugina
Blaze Fugina is the sports editor at the Pierce County Herald. Before working at the Herald, Blaze was a sports reporter at the Alexandria Echo Press for one year and 10 months. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in May of 2011. You can follow Blaze on Twitter at @BlazeFugina.
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