Junior hockey: Willmar spoils Ice Hawks’ party

Jason Feldman, jfeldman@postbulletin.com

Sep 18, 2016

A young Rochester Ice Hawks team took a step forward Saturday.

The Ice Hawks didn’t break into the win column and they’re still searching for their first goal of the new North American 3 Hockey League season.

But the team’s defensive effort — from goalie Sawyer Schmidt on out — in a 2-0 home-opener loss to the Willmar WarHawks was leaps and bounds ahead of where it was a week ago.

“In our first game there were certain things we were lacking,” Ice Hawks defenseman and captain Nick Wagner said. “(Saturday), we really picked it up. There are a few key aspects on the ice that we didn’t take charge of, and we’ll work on those things.”

While the Ice Hawks struggled to generate shots on goal, they sold out in the defensive end, dropping to block shots and allowing Schmidt to see and square-up to the puck. Schmidt, from Mandan, N.D., made half of his 38 saves in the third period to keep the Ice Hawks in the game.

The only goal Schmidt allowed came at 9:39 of the first period, when Riley Tigrett put a quick wrist shot past him just 12 seconds after the Ice Hawks had killed a penalty. Zach Martin scored the WarHawks other goal, an empty-net goal with 12 seconds remaining in the third period.

“Our defensemen let me see the puck pretty well and we took a big step up from our last game,” Schmidt said. “It gets easier as a goalie when you stay active, so I don’t mind seeing a lot of shots.”

Schmidt made his biggest save with 13:46 to go in the third period. Willmar’s Max Oelkers corralled a bouncing puck and got behind the Ice Hawks defensemen. Oelkers came in alone down the slot, but Schmidt held his ground, sliding left-to-right to make a stick save and keep the Ice Hawks within 1-0.

Wagner, a first-year Ice Hawk who quickly earned the respect of the locker room and became a team captain, said his teammates were happy with their improvement from their first game to their second, but not satisfied with the outcome.

“The younger guys on the team, they don’t need that teaching,” he said. “They all came up to this level knowing what to expect and over the past week or so they’re really showing it.”

The Ice Hawks will look for their first win and first goal of the season in a home-and-home two-game series against the Granite City Lumberjacks (St. Cloud) next weekend. The teams meet in St. Cloud at 7:30 p.m. Friday, then play a 7:05 p.m. game at the Rochester Recreation Center on Saturday.

“Nobody in (our locker room) is satisfied,” Ice Hawks coach Nick Fatis said. “It’s nice to see a team come out and play head and shoulders better than we did, and not be satisfied with one of the best steps forward we could have. Our effort level was far better, and our execution certainly was better.”

Notes …

• Ian Smyth, one of the Ice Hawks three captains, did not play for a second consecutive game, due to an injury.

• The Ice Hawks killed all seven of Willmar’s power plays.

WarHawks 2, Ice Hawks 0