Blizzard hockey: Worth more than the final score
Off the ice, the Alexandria Blizzard's much-anticipated game against the Russian Red Stars was everything the organization hoped it would be.
A record crowd of 1,166 fans walked through the doors hoping to see something special on a night the organization dubbed as Alexandria's "Miracle Match-up." What they saw was a Blizzard team that stuck right with the Red Stars through the final two periods but couldn't overcome an early hole that resulted in a 5-1 loss.
"I think a lot of people at this rink, regardless of whether you're playing or watching or if you're a kid," Blizzard head coach Doc DelCastillo said, "a lot of people are going to remember this night in Alexandria."
On the ice, the Blizzard needed to get off to a better start if the fans had any shot of remembering it as an Alexandria win. The Red Stars converted on their first power play just minutes into the game before Ury Skvortsov made it 2-0 shortly after with a breakaway goal off a Blizzard turnover.
Russia then caught a break to open things up even further. A bouncing puck in front of the net deflected off a Blizzard player's stick and into Alexandria's own net as Russia took all the momentum into the first intermission.
"If we were going to win this game, that's not the start that we needed," DelCastillo said. "We needed to keep it close, get the lead, get the fans into it. Just by those three goals alone, you kind of take the environment out of the game."
Thomas Williams gave the home crowd its biggest reason to cheer early in the third period. The former Cardinal standout crashed the net and gathered a rebound before putting in a backhand on an open net to make it a 4-1 game. Williams tugged on his USA jersey and raised his stick toward the crowd before his teammates mobbed him along the boards.
"It was definitely a great feeling," he said. "But mostly it gave the team a little boost, and we had things rolling for a little while. We knew we were going to have to chip away at the lead and get one early if we were going to get back in the game."
The Blizzard had its opportunities to climb even closer. Alexandria found itself on a five-minute power play midway through the third after Russia's Stanislav Zabornikov was given a game misconduct for fighting Rodney Lalonde with a taped hand.
The Blizzard couldn't inch closer with the man advantage. Instead, it was Russia that cemented the win with a shorthanded goal about a minute into the power play.
"We had a great opportunity to get some more goals," Williams said. "Anytime something like that happens, the spirits go down a little bit on the bench, whether you want them to or not."
For the Red Stars, it was their first win in their eight-game exhibition schedule. Russia lost to the University of North Dakota 5-1 this past Saturday. This group of all stars has something to prove every time it steps on the ice.
"We don't care if it's the Americans, Canadians or other European teams," goaltender Eugeny Ivannikov said through a translator after the game. "We just want to win. For us, it's not important that it's in America or Canada. We want to win anywhere we go."
Alexandria knew it would have its hands full coming into the night.
"I think they're definitely bigger and more skilled than what we normally see in this league," Williams said. "But for the most part, we gave them a good game."
Zach Woodman helped keep it close with his play in net during the second period. The Beloit, Wisconsin native hasn't seen much time in goal behind starter Jacob Meyers and backup Jameson Shortreed but came in and played well in relief of Meyers. He allowed just one goal in the middle frame and had 16 saves before giving way to Shortreed in the third.
DelCastillo hoped his team could play with Russia and give the fans a memorable experience. On that end, the Blizzard got what it was looking for out of a unique opportunity.
"I think the guys battled the whole night," DelCastillo said. "They represented really well...I think the community enjoyed it. I had a lot of people come up to me afterward and say, 'what a great experience. That was a lot of fun.' Outside of wins and losses, it's just a fun night to be a part of."