Blizzard hockey: Alexandria hungry for a playoff series win
The Alexandria Blizzard will take the third seed into the West Division playoffs Friday night with a little momentum after sweeping a good La Crosse team to end the regular season last weekend.
The Blizzard (31-14-1-1, 64 points) hosted the Freeze (34-12-1, 69 points) out of the Central Division on March 9 and 10 and won a 4-3 game to finish things off after a 5-3 win on Friday.
"I think it absolutely was a confidence boost," Blizzard head coach Jeff Crouse said of the weekend sweep. "I thought La Crosse played really well. They were playing hard and wanted to win, so from that standpoint, I think it's going to help us going into playoffs. It was good to see us play a good team. I'd rather have a good, tough weekend going into the playoffs instead of blowing someone out 10-1."
Waiting for Alexandria in the first round of the West Division Playoffs this weekend is the New Ulm Steel. A tight West Division race came down to the final games, but Granite City (33-14) got the top seed. The Lumberjacks and New Ulm (30-11-4-2) each finished with 66 points, but Granite City took the tiebreaker for that first seed.
Alexandria finished just two points behind them, meaning New Ulm hosts game one at the Sleepy Eye Ice Arena on Friday night at 7:10. Game two is at that same time back in Alexandria on Saturday. Game three, if necessary, would be in the Sleepy Eye Ice Arena at 5 p.m. on Sunday.
"It's obviously going to be a good matchup," Crouse said. "The division was crazy this year going down to three teams having a chance to win the division going into the last weekend. We like our matchup."
The Blizzard was 5-3 against New Ulm throughout this regular season. The Steel is led by Alex Nagel (25 goals, 37 assists) and Austin Langworthy (29 goals, 31 assists) offensively. Goaltender Ryan Kenny has a 2.44 goals against average and a .927 save percentage through the regular season.
Alexandria will attack Kenny with an offense that features four players with at least 50 points in Alec Skar (53), Brett Meister (54), Brenden Payne (72) and Logan Nelson (85).
Nelson is one of the top scorers in the NA3HL, finishing tied for seventh in points after tallying 38 goals and 47 assists. In parts of three seasons with the Blizzard, he has put up 161 points.
"He's been with us a few years now and been through the playoffs," Crouse said of Nelson. "He was a pretty good player for us last year too, but I think this year with that line he's playing on with Dylan Giorgio and Brenden Payne, they're just at a different level right now. I think teams will want to shut them down."
Teams that advance in the playoffs need their top players to step up, and Crouse is confident Nelson is the type of player who can do that.
"Absolutely," he said. "Logan broke just about every Blizzard record this year for points, goals. He's our all-time leading scorer now in Blizzard history. He had a great year. Now we just need to make sure he finishes it off in the playoffs."
In a short three-game series, game one is of vital importance. The Steel are hosting Alexandria in Sleepy Eye, which features a bigger Olympic-sized sheet of ice. Crouse said he believes that could neutralize New Ulm's home-ice advantage.
"We have a lot of fans that travel with us," Crouse said. "It's going to be a grind. We've had some success against them. They have a really good goalie, but we've had some success against him too. We're confident right now playing against New Ulm."
Alexandria just wants to continue playing like it has been over the second half of the season. The Blizzard has won four straight games and is 13-4-1-1 since Jan. 1.
"We were 11 or 12 points out of first place early in the year," Crouse said. "I wouldn't say teams wrote us off, but I think we had like the second best record in the league from mid-November on. We didn't lose too many hockey games. From where we were at the beginning to now, it really showed that the guys persevered and battled and did anything to win the division."
They fell just two points short of that, but Alexandria would gladly take a playoff series win over that top seed going in. The Blizzard is still looking for that first postseason series win since making the move to the NA3HL for the 2012-13 season.
"I've told this group if we ever get out of the first round, I don't think anybody's going to stop us," Crouse said. "I think we can make a heck of a run. We've played everybody. We beat North Iowa (39-4-2-2), probably the best team in the league. We just need to take it a game at a time. We've been there every single playoffs, and it's going to happen one of these years."
WEST DIVISION PLAYOFF SERIES
Alexandria (31-14-1-1) vs. New Ulm (30-11-4-2)
GAME ONE: March 16 at the Sleepy Eye Ice Arena, 7:10 p.m.
GAME TWO: March 17 at the Runestone Community Center in Alexandria, 7:10 p.m.
GAME THREE (If necessary): March 18 at the Sleepy Eye Ice Arena, 5 p.m.