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Comin' in Hot: Blizzard takes unbeaten streak into first playoff series

Alexandria Blizzard forward Brenden Payne brings the puck toward the net during a game with Granite City on Feb. 12. Payne is third on this team in points with 58 this season heading into the playoff opener against New Ulm on Friday night. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)

The Alexandria Blizzard likes where it's at heading into round one of the West Division playoffs this weekend.

The Blizzard finished second in the division with a 32-12-3 record (wins-losses-overtime and shootout losses) and will host the New Ulm Steel at 7:10 Friday night at the Runestone Community Center to open a best-of-three series.

"We have a pretty good unbeaten streak going here in the last month," head coach Jeff Crouse said. "I definitely feel we're in the groove right now. We're playing good hockey and our confidence is definitely sky high. It's going to be a battle. Our division is really tough. Any of the four teams I think can win the playoffs here. We're happy with where we're at and glad that we're going into the playoffs on a high note."

In its last 11 games, Alexandria has eight wins and three shootout losses. In eight games against the Steel in the regular season, the Blizzard was 2-2 at home and 1-3 at the New Ulm Civic Center.

Crouse partially attributes the losses to the team's struggles on big ice sheets, as the Steel plays its regular season home games on an Olympic-sized rink, rather than the smaller regulation size.

However, playoff games need to be played on regulation rinks, which bodes well for the Blizzard, he says.

"We're playing in Sleepy Eye, a rink next door, and that's regulation size ice," Crouse said. "So they don't really have a home ice advantage right now. Last time they came up here, we beat them 7-2, which was kind of a statement game I thought, too."

Besides a few instances where Alexandria gave up a few goals in streaks — a 6-5 shootout loss to Willmar after leading 5-1 halfway through the third period and surrendering four straight goals to La Crosse last Friday in a 6-4 win — the team has performed well, particularly between the pipes and on special teams.

Although goalie Brey Effertz sustained a minor injury on Friday, which left Michael Hughes to get a shutout on Saturday against the Freeze to finish the series sweep, it's Effertz who will get the nod Friday against New Ulm.

"Brey has kind of been the backbone of this team," said Crouse. "He had 20-some odd wins this year and seven shutouts, and was one of the league leaders in minutes played for goaltenders. He's an older guy, he's been there, he's done that, so from that standpoint he's been around a little bit. That's my plan right now, but we have confidence in both our goalies."

Effertz is 21-10 (including a shootout loss) this season with a 2.35 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. Hughes sports a 10-7 (including four shootout losses) record, a 2.48 GAA and .911 save percentage.

In the series against La Crosse, the Blizzard scored 10 goals, with six of them coming on the power play, and the team gave up just one power-play goal to the Freeze. Both of the power play units have been solid all year, putting them above the 20-percent mark, which is where Crouse said is a good place to be heading into the postseason.

"You only get two, three, four power plays per game sometimes in the playoffs because the refs kind of bury the whistle," he said. "So you have to make sure when you get an opportunity, you at least get the momentum and hopefully score a goal on the power play. I'm pretty pleased where it's at right now."

The Granite City Lumberjacks came out of the West in first place. They tied Alexandria with 32 wins, but had more losses come in overtime and shootouts to carry the extra points. The Jacks take on fourth-seeded Breezy Point in the first round.

"We're definitely the best division, and everybody knows that," Crouse said. "Every team in our division is .500 or better. You look at some of those other divisions and you can see why some of those teams are putting up that amount of points and going undefeated and stuff like that. They come over here, it would be a completely different story. It's been like that for years now. We're definitely one of the powerhouses. Whoever has the chance to come out of this division has a chance to win the Silver Cup.

"It's good to be battle-tested. Every game matters over here, and that's a good thing going into playoffs."

Game two of the series against New Ulm is at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday. A game three, if necessary, would be back in Alexandria at the same time on Sunday night.