Blizzard hockey: Incredible run ends with title

By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press

Everything had to go right for the Alexandria Blizzard to capture its first-ever Central Division title this past weekend.

Alexandria came into the final three games in third place, trailing first place Coulee Region by five points. The Blizzard needed to sweep all three games and hope Austin could knock off the Chill in its season finale on Sunday. Owatonna also needed to slip up against Bismarck on Saturday night. Turns out it wasn’t too much to ask.

Alexandria capped off its incredible run with a title celebration on its home ice after Micahel Pieper scored in overtime to give his team a 5-4 win over Bismarck on Sunday. That, coupled with a 4-1 Austin win over Coulee Region, moved Alexandria into first place for the first time all season with 72 points.

“A week and a half ago, we were a fourth-place team in the division,” head coach Doc DelCastillo said. “If you are going to pick one night to be in first place, the best time to do it is probably on the last night.”

The three wins over the weekend epitomizes the run this team has been on since January. The Blizzard has found ways to close out teams down the stretch and did that again in 4-1 and 4-3 wins over the Chill on Friday and Saturday night.

That set the stage for a historic comeback against the Bobcats on Sunday. Bismarck jumped to a 3-0 lead after two power-play goals within the first two minutes of the second period.

Making things more difficult was the fact that Alexandria had to play without major contributors off their top two lines. Two of the team’s leading scorers were out with injuries in Steve Zierke and Alex Altenbernd. Defensive captain Tyler Swanson was also kept out with an injury, while the Blizzard was dealt another blow when forward Reid Sturos was ejected from the game after a checking from behind penalty late in the second period.

Alexandria showed off its depth in their absence. Josh Gaughan got his seventh goal of the season to cut Bismarck’s lead to 3-1 almost eight minutes into the second. Craig Lindegard then scored his biggest goal of the year when he connected on a power play 41 seconds before intermission. The final minutes of that period saved Alexandria’s title hopes.

“We had made it 3-1 and then they got a penalty shot after a pull down on a breakaway,” DelCastillo said. “Jake Williams made a great save on the penalty shot. That was huge. Then we get that late goal, and history has shown that we’re pretty good in the third period. So we went into the locker room thinking we just need to win a period.”

The Blizzard knew what was at stake going into the third. Alexandria had received updates all night on what was going on in Coulee Region’s game versus Austin. The coaches let the players know what they were playing for when the Bruins took an early 2-0 lead over the Chill in the first period.

That was all the motivation the Blizzard needed. Lindegard scored his second of the night 3:16 into the final period to tie things up at three apiece. Bismarck retook the lead almost six minutes later on a goal by Francis DeAugustine.

With less than five minutes left in the game, the Blizzard’s leading scorer answered back. Nardo Nagtzaam connected on the most important of his 36 goals this season at 15:24 to send the game into overtime.

That set up the heroics for Pieper. The first-year defenseman sent his team home with a championship with his fourth goal of the season when he connected one minute, 56 seconds into the extra session.

“To score that goal with the idea that you have an opportunity to win a championship, I’m just so happy for these guys,” DelCastillo said. “There are a lot of times in hockey where great players don’t win championships…There has been some good Blizzard teams that have never had that opportunity.”

The second-year Alexandria coach knows how special that moment was for his players. DelCastillo said he has been a part of four championship teams in almost 25 years of playing and coaching at the college and junior-hockey levels.

“That’s not a lot,” he said. “And I said that to the guys. When you have an opportunity to play for a championship, you gotta take it.”

The Blizzard will have to refocus soon. Alexandria will welcome in Bismarck again this weekend as the Bobcats come in for the first two of a best-of-five game series.

Preparing for the playoffs could wait on Sunday night. Pieper’s goal allowed the team to reflect on the amazing run that ended in a championship. After finishing with 21 wins in its last 30 games, the Blizzard had earned the right to celebrate.

“One day they might come back with their grandkids and walk into that building,” DelCastillo said, “and point to that banner and say, ‘I was on that team.’ That could be 50 years from now. Those banners hang there forever, and that’s pretty special.”

GAME SUMMARY:

BISMARCK 1 2 1 0 – 4

ALEXANDRIA 0 2 2 1 – 5

SHOTS – Bismarck – 16, 10, 6, 2 – 34; Alexandria – 17, 12, 20, 5 – 54; POWER PLAYS – Bismarck – 2-5; Alexandria 2-6

SCORING SUMMARY – FIRST PERIOD – Bismarck – Castan Sommer (Daniel Ray, Charles Aus), 10:43

SECOND PERIOD – Bismarck – Charles Mosey (PPG) (Daniel Zawacki, Nikolaj Rosenthal), 0:49; Bismarck – Daniel Zawacki (PPG) (Daniel Ray, Nikolaj Rosenthal), 1:44; Alexandria – Josh Gaughan (Mike Krieg, Jordan Nelson), 7:52; Alexandria – Craig Lindegard (PPG) (Rock Einersen, Mike Krieg), 19:19

THIRD PERIOD – Alexandria – Craig Lindegard (Tucker Coborn, Michael Pieper), 3:16; Bismarck – Francis DeAugustine (Nicholas Miglio), 9:08; Alexandria – Nardo Nagtzaam (PPG) (Joe Rubbelke, Brent Bain), 15:24

OVERTIME – Alexandria – Michael Pieper (Jordan Nelson, Brent Bain), 1:56

GOALTENDING – Bismarck – Tommy Burke – L, 49 saves, 54 shots faced; Alexandria – Jake Williams – W, 30 saves, 34 shots faced

PENALTIES – Bismarck – 32 minutes on 12 infractions; Alexandria – 40 minutes on 11 infractions

 COULEE REGION 1 1 1 – 3

ALEXANDRIA 1 2 1 – 4

SHOTS – Coulee Region – 8, 11, 9 – 28; Alexandria – 12, 13, 13 – 38; POWER PLAYS – Coulee Region – 2-6; Alexandria – 0-4

SCORING SUMMARY – FIRST PERIOD – Coulee Region – David Ripple (PPG) (Lucas Dillon, Connor Gaarder), 9:43; Alexandria – Alex Altenbernd (extra attacker) (Michael Pieper, Nardo Nagtzaam), 16:34

SECOND PERIOD – Alexandria – Alex Altenbernd (Nardo Nagtzaam, Michael Pieper), 3:50; Alexandria – Mike Krieg (Brent Bain, Steve Zierke), 14:31; Coulee Region – Micky Knox (PPG) (Berkley Scott, Zac Frishmon), 19:12

THIRD PERIOD – Alexandria – Tucker Coborn (Paul LaDue, Nardo Nagtzaam), 0:58; Coulee Region – Tate Rusk (Jake Useldinger, Scott Bell), 9:11

GOALTENDING – Coulee Region – Aaron Davis – L, 34 saves, 38 shots faced; Coulee Region – 25 saves, 28 shots

PENALTIES – Coulee Region – 10 minutes, five infractions; Alexandria – 24 minutes, eight infractions

 COULEE REGION 1 0 0 – 1

ALEXANDRIA 1 2 1 – 4

SHOTS – Coulee Region – 8, 8, 8 – 24; Alexandria – 9, 11, 8 – 28; POWER PLAYS – Coulee Region – 0-7; Alexandria – 1-2

SCORING SUMMARY – FIRST PERIOD – Coulee Region – Lucas Dillon (Connor Gaarder), 7:16; Alexandria – Thomas Williams (Nardo Nagtzaam, Alex Altenbernd), 16:01

SECOND PERIOD – Alexandria – Brent Bain (Steve Zierke, Reid Sturos), 2:59; Alexandria – Reid Sturos (PPG) (Nardo Nagtzaam, Alex Altenbernd), 9:53

THIRD PERIOD – Alexandria – Nardo Nagtzaam (Alex Altenbernd, Thomas Williams), 9:09

GOALTENDING – Coulee Region – Paul Moberg – L, 24 saves, 28 shots faced; Alexandria – Jake Williams – W, 23 saves, 24 shots faced

 BEST BLIZZARD TEAM EVER?

This year’s Alexandria Blizzard team has already made a case to be considered the best team in the organization’s history.

 The Blizzard set a new regular-season record for most wins by going 33-19-6.

 Alexandria’s dynamic forward Nardo Nagtzaam has played a big role in that. He finished second in the North American Hockey League with 87 points. His 51 assists were tied for the most in the league with Motor City’s Cody Wydo.

 Fans are encouraged to white out the Runestone Community Center this Friday night by wearing white when Bismarck comes to town.

 BLIZZARD OPEN AT HOME FRIDAY:

The Alexandria Blizzard will open their Central Division playoff schedule Friday and Saturday with 7:30 p.m. games at the Runestone Community Center

 They will be hosting the

defending Robertson Cup champion Bismarck Bobcats