Blizzard hockey: Alexandria opens a new era at home SaturdayThe new NA3HL team is ready to take on the defending champs in front of its home fans for the first time.
By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
Seven straight games on the road to open a season would make any team anxious for its home opener.
Add that to the fact that this is a new team with a fan base ready to see what a new level of hockey looks like, and it’s easy to see why the Alexandria Blizzard is ready to welcome in Granite City on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“We just came back from North Iowa with a lot of fans,” leading scorer Ian Eckland said. “So we hope to have a lot of fans here on Saturday night…It will be a [great] fight. Granite City is the defending champs and they’re a very quick team. It will be a good way to show that our team is pretty good.”
Granite City is the team that everyone is shooting for as the defending NA3HL champions. The Lumberjacks have a strong nucleus back from last year, and it’s showed on their way to a perfect 7-0 start. Included in that is a 3-2 win over Alexandria on September 28.
“It was a great test for us early in the season,” Blizzard head coach Jeff Crouse said. “It was great playing them. I walked into the locker room after the game and I said, ‘Guys, I think that’s the best team in the league.’ They all looked at me and were like, ‘We can beat them.’ It was a huge test for us just to see where we were at.”
Crouse said where they are at right now is not where he expects this team to be in a couple months. Alexandria features a lot of young players, especially at the forward position, who are still getting used to the junior hockey level.
That has led to some inconsistency through a 4-3 start to the season. The Blizzard dominated Twin City last Friday night in a 5-1 win where Alexandria outshot the Steel 56-33. The next night, that script was flipped as North Iowa outshot the Blizzard 41-22 in a 3-1 win for the Bulls.
“It’s the consistency factor,” Crouse said. “We lost 3-2 to Granite City, they’re 7-0 so far and have been beating up on everyone, and we could have beat them. North Iowa has got a very good team. We’re right there. Our consistency is getting better. I think in another 10-12 games, some of these guys are going to really start seeing a difference in their game. All of a sudden, they’re going to start scoring and things are going to come easier.”
That progression is all a part of the process at this level. Guys like Alexandria’s Garrett Skinner are in their first season playing junior hockey and finding out how important that consistency is. Skinner did a little bit of everything for the Cardinals high school team last winter but was counted on to be an important piece on defense.
Now with the Blizzard, he is being looked upon to be one of the team’s top scorers at forward. Skinner has lived up to that through the first seven games. He’s second on the team in goals scored (3) and points (8). Five of those points have come in the last four games as he continues to gain experience at this level.
“It’s a lot different,” Skinner said of the jump from high school. “It’s faster. Everyone is pretty good out here. You don’t just have your top two lines that are good. You usually have about four solid lines. It’s a lot more physical than high school.”
That’s what the players hope to demonstrate to their home fans on Saturday night. With the move of the NAHL team to Brookings, fans were naturally wondering what kind of a drop there would be in the level of play in the NA3HL. After months of wondering, those fans will get their answer on Saturday night.
“I think there’s a lot of anxious people waiting to see what kind of level the play is,” Crouse said. “It’s not that big of a difference. Speed and overall skill, yeah, you’re going to get a drop down, but I told Cory Laylin, the coach in Brookings, I said, ‘You could take my first line and I could take your fourth line and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.’ That’s kind of the breakdown.”