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Blizzard hockey: Playoff race gets tighter as New Ulm steals one in Alexandria

Alexandria Blizzard forward Brandon Connett fends off a couple of New Ulm defenders to get a shot on net during Friday night's game at the Runestone Community Center. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)1 / 5
Alexandria Blizzard forward Brett Meister goes to center ice to celebrate the first goal of the game on Friday night less than three minutes into the first period against New Ulm. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)2 / 5
Alexandria forward Brett Meister gets free on his way to a first-period goal on Friday after fending off defenders along the board. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)3 / 5
Alexandria forwards Dylan Mattson (front) and Dylan Giorgio (22) head to the net for a scoring opportunity during Friday night's West Division game against New Ulm at the Runestone Community Center. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)4 / 5
Alexandria Blizzard goaltender Kyle Hayden deflects a puck just wide of the net during the second period of Friday's night's game against New Ulm. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)5 / 5

The playoff picture in the NA3HL is starting to come into focus and one of the teams that played in Alexandria on Friday night might not be a part of that picture in March.

The Alexandria Blizzard and New Ulm Steel entered Friday’s first game of a home-and-home series between these two teams with the Blizzard holding a three-point lead over the Steel for the fourth and final playoff spot. With just nine games left, these final two head-to-head matchups between the two could prove vital, and New Ulm got the first one in a 3-1 win.

“I thought we played well tonight, just like we have been, but that’s why you play the game,” Blizzard head coach Jeff Crouse said. “Give credit to them. They hopped on the bus and stole one in our barn. It’s been a while since we’ve lost here.”

The Steel (21-15-0-2, 44 points) got the game-winner at 6:01 of the third. Carson Sandwick gathered the puck in front of the blue line and threw it on net with no defender in front of him. It found its way past Kyle Hayden. Jack Parks scored his second goal of the game at 15:36 of the third to make it 3-1 and erase what had been a 1-0 Alexandria lead early on.

“We played hard, we played fast,” Blizzard forward Brett Meister said. “We have speed on them, and we used it to our advantage. In the end, we made a couple minor mistakes. They capitalized, and we didn’t capitalize on their mistakes. That was the story, really.”

The Blizzard (22-16-0-1, 45 points) came out buzzing in the first period. Meister fended off defenders along the left boards before getting free for a goal less than three minutes into the game. Alexandria outshot New Ulm 18-6 in the opening frame but had to settle for a 1-1 tie at intermission when Parks scored at 18:14 on an open look in front of the net.

Crouse felt not getting two or three goals in the first was the backbreaker. Coming out of that period in a tie gave the Steel some confidence heading into the locker room.

“The opportunities for us were definitely there,” Meister said. “We had a lot of shots. That was our plan, keep getting shots, keep crashing the net. Most of the time it works out for you, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

The Steel turned the tide a bit in the second. They outshot Alexandria 12-9 in the middle frame, but Kyle Hayden turned aside all 12 to keep it a 1-1 tie.

Hayden kept his team in the game with 24 saves, but New Ulm’s Henry Baribeau was a little better. Baribeau bounced back from the early goal allowed and posted 37 saves on the way to his 16th win of the season.

“He played a very good game,” Meister said. “He was moving well in the crease. He went side to side and made some big saves for them. I think he stole that one from us, for sure.”  

The Blizzard are still in the midst of five wins in the last six games at a point in the schedule that had the potential to make or break its season. Four of the previous five wins came against teams in front of Alexandria in the division in Rochester (twice), Granite City and North Iowa.

That’s why there was no sense of panic in Crouse or Meister after the game. They believe in the way this team is playing, despite a close loss to the Steel on Friday.

“Everybody is playing their role,” Crouse said. “Adding (Alexandria’s Jack) Powell obviously helps, and we added Ike Taraszewski and Wes Johnson I got from North Iowa. Our lines have kind of been set now and our d-pairings have kind of been set. Both my goaltenders are playing well. The confidence is there with everybody and we’re playing a team game.”

Saturday’s game in New Ulm is now a big one with the Steel pulling within a point of the Blizzard for the fourth seed in the West. Rochester is six points in front of Alexandria in third.

New Ulm also plays second-place North Iowa on Sunday this weekend, so the potential is there for the Steel to make ground or fall further back. Alexandria hopes to make it the latter of those after dropping game one of the series at home.

“We’ve been playing some great hockey, the best we’ve played all year,” Meister said. “It’s tough, but it’s a good opportunity to bounce back (Saturday). We’re looking to get that tomorrow and get two points there.”

ALEXANDRIA     1 0 0 - 1

NEW ULM           1 0 1 - 2

SHOTS - ALEXANDRIA - 18, 9, 11 - 38; NEW ULM - 6, 12, 9 - 27

SCORING - FIRST PERIOD - Alexandria, Brett Meister 16 (Sam Prisbe, Joe Dokken), 2:03. New Ulm -  Jack Parks 13 (James Spaargaren, Carson Sandwick), 18:14

SECOND PERIOD - No scoring

THIRD PERIOD - New Ulm - Carson Sadwick (8) (Jarrett Cammarata, Sam Ayd), 6:01; New Ulm - Parks (14) (James Spaargaren, Michael Savelkoul), 15:36

GOALTENDING - Alexandria - Kyle Hayden - L, 24 saves, 3 goals allowed; New Ulm - Henry Baribeau - W, 37 saves, 1 goal allowed

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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