Blizzard hockey: Bitzer shines in NAHL debutThe Moorhead goalie was thrown into action and didn't skip a beat against the Central's top team
By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
Moorhead standout Michael Bitzer has been up to every challenge put in front of him this season, so maybe it shouldn’t surprise anyone how well he played in his North American Hockey League debut on Saturday night.
Bitzer was thrown into action on the road against the Central Division’s best team and showed why he was widely considered the top high school goaltender in the state this season. He played with the poise of a veteran, stopping 30-of-31 shots to lead Alexandria to a 5-1 win.
“After the last few days of practice, I felt like I had gotten used to it,” Bitzer said of the pace of play. “As the game went on, I felt a lot more comfortable. Our defense played well and made it easy on me. I feel like I didn’t have to make any difficult saves or anything.”
Bitzer’s arrival for the last month of the season is a blessing for a Blizzard team that was dealt a blow in goal two weeks ago. Backup goaltender Jameson Shortreed suffered a separated shoulder in Aberdeen that will keep him out for the rest of the season. That opened the door for Alexandria to bring in Bitzer after his high school season was over.
Head coach Doc DelCastillo told him he would play eventually but had no plans to throw him in against one the best teams in the league in Bismarck. That changed when starting goaltender Jacob Meyers couldn’t go on a sprained ankle after fighting through the injury in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Bobcats the night before. Bitzer found out he would be playing when he showed up at the rink on Saturday morning.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know,” DelCastillo said when asked what he expected out of him in his NAHL debut. “I know he’s a talented goaltender, but if there’s a trial by fire, it would be throwing a new goalie into it at Bismarck. He did great. The team played very well in front of him, but he played extremely well that night and showed he’s a very talented goaltender.
It didn’t take long for Bitzer to alleviate any concerns. The 18-year-old withstood 12 Bismarck shots in the opening period as Alexandria took a 1-0 lead off a Seth Ronsberg goal. Bismarck’s only score came off the stick of the Bobcats’ leading scorer, Castan Sommer, in the second period.
Alexandria sandwiched goals from Dylan Zink and Ronsberg around that to take a 3-1 lead into the third. Gage Torrel and Matt Youso then provided insurance as the Blizzard pulled away in the last regular-season game of the year between these two teams.
It was just another highlight in what has been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Bitzer. He helped Moorhead to a fourth-place finish at state on March 10 in a tournament run that was highlighted by a 4-0 shutout over third-seeded Eagan.
His 1.80 goals against average and .933 save percentage this season helped him earn the Frank Brimsek Award as Minnesota’s best senior goaltender. He showed on Saturday that his talent could transition to the next level pretty quickly.
“It’s been fun,” Bitzer said. “It’s exciting getting the opportunity to play here, and to play in the state tournament and do well there. It’s been a great couple of weeks.”
It was also a big weekend for Alexandria as the Blizzard took three out of a possible four points against the Bobcats. This team is still trying to hold off Austin, which sits four points behind the Blizzard for second place in the Central. Both teams have five games left in the regular season.
Any point is big at this time of year, and Alexandria salvaged one by rallying from a 2-0 deficit to force a shootout last Friday. Thomas Williams made Bismarck pay for taking a late penalty by connecting on a wrister that ended up forcing overtime.
Bismarck’s Tommy Burke stood tall to give his team the extra point in the shootout. He turned aside Nick D’Avolio, Ronsberg, Zink and Craig Lindegard before Adam Knochenmus put the finishing touches on the win for the Bobcats. Alexandria wanted the two points but wasn’t hanging its head after rallying to force overtime.
“I thought we showed a lot of courage to come back and score a goal with under five minutes left to tie it,” DelCastillo said. “I thought it showed tremendous character on our team…getting three out of a possible four points against Bismarck, that’s a great weekend.”
A CHANCE TO CLINCH
The Blizzard will now have a chance to wrap up home ice in the first round of the playoffs if things go well this weekend.
Alexandria has three games on the schedule, including a game with Austin at the Runestone Community Center this Sunday at 5 p.m. The Blizzard will be in Minot on Friday before returning home to take on the Minotauros at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The Bruins have to play two games with Bismarck before coming to Alexandria on Sunday. The Blizzard knows it needs to take care of business against Minot before worrying about anything else.
“Going into Friday, we can’t be worried about wrapping up home ice,” DelCastillo said. “We need to worry about playing really well for 60 minutes…I know we’re getting down there where you can start doing some math, but as a coach, I don’t get into looking at schedules. If you take care of your two points that you’re playing for, everything will take care of itself.”
ALEXANDRIA 1 2 2 – 5
BISMARCK 0 1 0 – 1
SHOTS – Alexandria – 8, 14, 16 – 38; Bismarck – 12, 11, 8 – 31; Power plays – Alexandria – 1-2; Bismarck – 0-3
FIRST PERIOD – Alexandria – Seth Ronsberg (Jordan Krebsbach, Thomas Williams)
SECOND PERIOD – Alexandria – Dylan Zink (PPG) (Seth Ronsberg), 9:24; Bismarck – Castan Sommer (Shane Omdahl), 14:24; Alexandria – Seth Ronsberg (Thomas Williams, Reid Sturos), 15:27
THIRD PERIOD – Alexandria – Gage Torrel (Vadim Gyesbreghs, Sean Mostrom), 1:56; Alexandria – Matt Youso (empty net), unassisted, 18:09
GOALTENDING – Alexandria – Michael Bitzer – W, 30 saves, 31 shots; Bismarck – Tommy Burke – L, 33 saves, 37 shots
BISMARCK 1 1 0 0 1 – 3
ALEXANDRIA 0 1 1 0 0 – 2
SHOTS – Bismarck – 12, 9, 11, 0, 1 – 33; Alexandria – 10, 10, 3, 0, 0 – 23; Power plays – Bismarck – 0-5; Alexandria – 0-4
FIRST PERIOD – Bismarck – Adam Knochenmus (Francis DeAugustine), 16:35
SECOND PERIOD – Bismarck – Donald Olivieri (Daniel Zawacki, Adam Knochenmus); Alexandria – Justin Moody (Aidan Cavallini, Craig Lindegard)
THIRD PERIOD – Alexandria – Thomas Williams (Tucker Coborn, Seth Ronsberg)
OVERTIME – No scoring
SHOOTOUT – Bismarck – John Furgele; Castan Sommer; Tyler Richter; Daniel Zawacki, goal; Adam Knochenmus, goal; Alexandria – Nick D’Avolio; Seth Ronsberg; Dylan Zink; Craig Lindegard
GOALTENDING – Bismarck – Tommy Burke – W, 21 saves, 23 shots; Alexandria – Jacob Meyers – OTL, 30 saves, 32 shots