The Alexandria Blizzard's three-game weekend may not have had an impact on where they sit in the NA3HL West Division standings but was crucial for building momentum with top-seeded North Iowa on the horizon.
After picking up two wins against the Coulee Region Chill (29-18-0-0) on Friday and Saturday, the Blizzard (24-19-3-1) fell to the Rochester Grizzlies in overtime (36-8-1-1) by a score of 6-5 on Sunday.
"They have some crafty forwards," Blizzard coach Jeff Crouse said. "They have a lot of skill, and they are at the top of their division for a reason. They have a legitimate chance of winning the whole thing in a few weeks."
The Grizzlies got on the board with an early first-period goal from Matthew DeRosa. He picked the top-right corner over the shoulder of Blizzard goalie, Ville Hyttinen, to give Rochester 1-0 lead.
Alexandria pushed to tie the game after killing off a five-minute penalty, but Sean Guerin stood tall in net for Rochester. Before the first intermission, Devin Hays scored a short-handed goal to double the lead.
Mathias Branton scored his first goal of the season to cut the lead in half two minutes into the second period, but Rochester's Michael Heitkamp regained the two-goal lead four minutes later. Ryne Mohrman scored his second goal of the year for the Blizzard before Nic Leisen retook the lead for the Grizzlies 40 seconds before the intermission.
Austin McNeil had himself a productive weekend on the ice. He scored six goals, including the third Alexandria tally that cut Rochester's lead to one. McNeil has 16 goals and 12 assists since North Iowa traded him to Alexandria.
"When I was in North Iowa, we used to do a pregame skate," McNeil said. "We don't do that as a team here. I started finding time to shoot and stickhandle by myself before games. I think that's made the difference for me."
McNeil played on Alexandria's second line with Nolan Westra and Cole Jacobs, which has been a big part of the Blizzard's postseason push.
"I didn't know who I was going to be with when I got here in the middle of the season," McNeil said. "Those guys are hard-working, and it's fun playing with them. I think I can click with anyone of those guys in the locker room. We all feel that way. Ever since we got that big win against Granite City a few weeks ago, we've been playing well."
Joey Fodstad continued the back-and-forth battle with another Rochester goal midway through the third period, but Nolan Westra answered for the Blizzard. Alexandria cut the lead to one again just 19 seconds after Fodstad's goal.
"There were times where this team did quit this year, but that hasn't happened lately," Crouse said. "At the end of the year, you want to be playing your best hockey. They say that for every team in every sport. We are playing well right now, and part of that is because we aren't quitting when it gets tough on us."
The Blizzard finally tied the game with 3:20 remaining in the third period. Brandon Connett scored his 39th goal of the season. Michal Trejbal found Connett in front of the net to send the game to overtime.
Midway through the overtime period, Connett and Caleb Strong entered the zone with speed towards the opposing net. Strong made a move past a Rochester defender before dishing the puck to Connett, where he then made a move towards the net.
The Grizzlies blocked Connett's shot and rushed down the ice on an odd-man rush. DeRosa scored his second goal of the game after Hyttinen robbed Peyton Hart's one-time shot.
"We wanted to keep our streak alive," Crouse said. "We ended the season without losing in regulation in our last 10 games. I think this weekend was good to build confidence over two good teams heading into the playoffs next weekend."
The Blizzard picked up two dominating wins over the Coulee Region Chill over the weekend. On Friday, Alexandria won 9-2 before picking up a 7-3 victory on Saturday. The Blizzard won't play the Grizzlies again unless they win the West Division playoffs. To do that, they will have to go through top-seeded North Iowa (38-7-2-0).
"North Iowa is very similar to Rochester," Crouse said. "They do a lot of the same things with their forwards, and they both have beaten everybody this year. But I think we are similar to the team we had last year when we beat Granite City. I think we are ending the regular season the way we wanted to, and these guys know what it's going to take to pull off an upset."
The Blizzard will play on the road in North Iowa on Friday before coming home on Saturday for game two. If necessary, they will go back on the road on Sunday for the winner-take-all game. For McNeil, it's a chance to beat the team he played for a few months ago.
"I'm still friends with everybody there, and it's a great organization," McNeil said. "I have no hard feelings towards them, but I still want to win. I know we haven't beaten them all year, but we know we can. It's going to be a fun series, and we can't wait."
COULEE REGION 2 0 0 - 2
ALEXANDRIA 4 0 5 - 9
SCORING- FIRST PERIOD- Alexandria- Austin mcNeil (Val Popowski, Nolan Westra) 1:53; Alexandria- McNeil (Westra, Cole Jacobs) 8:48; Coulee Region- Sam VanderHoeven (unassisted) 10:07; Alexandria- Caleb Strong (Brandon Connett) 11:20; Alexandria- Strong (Connett, Michal Trejbal) 15:53; Coulee Region- Ethan McCormack (Jack Sumner, Dylan Dent) 16:08; THIRD PERIOD- Alexandria- Wesley Johnson (Dylan Carlson, Vap Popowski) short handed, 1:52; Alexandria- McNeil (Jacobs, Westra) 3:02; Alexandria- Derek Dropik (Dallas Duckson, Carter Rieland) 13:38; Alexandria- Duckson (Connett, Dropik) 14:49; Alexandria- Duckson (Evan Sivets, Jack Taylor) short handed, 17:25; PENALTIES- Alexandria 10 minutes on 5 infractions; Coulee Region 8 minutes on 4 infractions; GOALTENDING- Alexandria- Ville Hyttinen, W, 38 saves, 2 goals allowed; Coulee Region- Michael Janke, L, 34 saves, 9 goals allowed;
COULEE REGION 2 0 1 - 3
ALEXANDRIA 1 3 3 - 7
SCORING- FIRST PERIOD- Coulee Region- Marco Escobar (Gadel Khismatullin, Parker Severson) power play, 0:57; Alexandria- Johnson (Cole Lehmann) short handed, 6:57; Coulee Region- Brenden Fehlig (Parker Severson) 13:05; SECOND PERIOD- Alexandria- McNeil (Lehmann, Westra) power play, 4:22; Alexandria- McNeil (Rieland, Lehmann) 8:00; Alexandria- Trejbal (Popowski, Ryne Mohrman) 13:02; THIRD PERIOD- Coulee Region- Severson (VanderHoeven) 2:05; Alexandria- E. Sivets (McNeil, Mathias Branton) 2:24; Alexandria- Taylor (Strong, Rieland) short handed, 10:03; Alexandria- Connett (Lehman, Westra) short handed, 14:40; PENALTIES- Alexandria- 46 minutes on 15 infractions; Coulee Region 32 minutes on 15 infractions; GOALTENDING- Alexandria- Bailey Rosch, W, 25 saves, 3 goals allowed; Coulee Region- Davis Naidow, L, 40 saves, 3 goals allowed;
ROCHESTER 2 2
ALEXANDRIA 0 2
SCORING- FIRST PERIOD- Rochester- Matthew DeRosa (Logan Olson) 2:40; Rochester- Devin Hays (Porter Haney) short handed, 17:38; SECOND PERIOD- Alexandria- Branton (McNeil) 2:18; Rochester- Michael Heitkamp (Peyton Hart, Nic Leisen) 6:02; Alexandria Mohrman (McNeil) 14:20; Rochester- Leisen (Hart, Heitkamp) 19:20; THIRD PERIOD- Alexandria- McNeil (Westra) 2:49; Rochester- Joey Fodstad (Hays, Heitkamp) 9:20; Alexandria- Westra (Jacobs, McNeil) 9:39; Alexandria- Connett (Trejbal, Strong) 16:40; OVERTIME- DeRosa (Hart); PENALTIES- Alexandria- 29 minutes 4 infractions; Rochester- 6 minutes 3 infractions; GOALTENDING- Alexandria- Hyttinen, OTL, 25 saves, 6 goals allowed; Rochester Sean Guerin, W, 32 saves, 5 goals allowed