Junior hockey: Grizzlies ready to show off at Showcase
In less than half of a season, the Rochester Grizzlies have earned the respect of their rivals in the North American 3 Hockey League West Division.
The Grizzlies hope to open some eyes around the rest of the league in the coming days.
Rochester’s first-year NA3HL franchise will travel to Blaine Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to play in the NA3HL Showcase at the Schwan Super Rink. All 36 teams from the league will converge on Blaine, as will scouts from the top junior leagues in the country and most — if not all — Division III college programs.
“We get to see where we stack up within the whole league,” Grizzlies coach Casey Mignone said. “We just want our guys to focus on playing our game. If we do that well, we’ll play with most teams on any given night.”
The Grizzlies take a 17-6-0 record into the Showcase and have a chance to end the first half of the season with 20 victories, a major accomplishment for a brand new team that has played a challenging first-half schedule.
Rochester is scheduled to face the Oswego Stampede (Mexico, N.Y.) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday in their Showcase opener. They’ll then face the New England Stars (Hudson, N.H.) at 1 p.m. Monday before closing the Showcase Tuesday against the Peoria (Ill.) Mustangs at 1:30 p.m.
“It’s a chance to get noticed, but those scouts aren’t looking to notice guys individually,” Mignone said. “If we play our team game well and you as players play well, they’ll notice you. You don’t have to try to do something special just because it’s the Showcase.”
BUCKLIN, SZABO WILL BE BACK
With the Grizzlies not playing on Friday or today, a pair of their players have been called up to the Austin Bruins of the NAHL for a series at Bismarck (N.D.).
Forward Richard Szabo and goalie Nick Bucklin made the long bus trip north with the Bruins, who are 17-6-3 and in a tight battle for the top spot in the NAHL Central Division. They’re just three points back of division-leading Aberdeen (S.D.) entering the weekend.
Both players will be back with the Grizzlies for the NA3HL Showcase.
Szabo is second on the Grizzlies with 15 goals and 30 points in 19 games played. Bucklin has become a go-to guy in goal for the Grizz, having started six of their past eight games.
The Grizzlies coaches said the time their players have spent with NAHL teams this season — whether it’s for games or practices — has been beneficial.
“Every guy handles it a little differently,” Mignone said. “The guys who have gone over there and practiced, they’ve seen what it takes to get there and hopefully they come back here and ramp up that intensity.
“Richard has figured out the urgency factor up there.”
Szabo played with the Bruins last week at Brookings and recorded his first NAHL goal.
“That’s one thing we’re getting better at, just understanding how hard you have to compete against each other in practice every day,” Grizzlies assistant coach Mike Aikens said. “If you do that and you’re a good team, with good players and you compete hard, when you get to the weekend, the game should be almost a little easier, because you’re used to playing at that speed and intensity.
“It’s really hard to not do the work during the week, then get to the weekend and flip that switch.”
NEW PLAYERS MAKING IMPACT
The Grizzlies added two players to their roster at Thanksgiving time and both have made an immediate impression on the team and the coaching staff.
Forward Nic Leisen — a Kasson native — and defenseman Stephan Jirovec, from Louny, Czech Republic, have fit nicely into Rochester’s lineup.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Leisen has three goals and one assist in four games as a Grizzly. Jirovec (6-0, 185) has one assist and has become a key penalty killer in a short time.
“Stephan has been really steady,” Mignone said. “He defends well, makes a good first pass and is tough to play against. He’s reliable, good on the (penalty kill), blocks shots, a really steady guy.”
Leisen played two seasons of high school hockey with the Dodge County Wildcats before spending three seasons in the Iowa Wild AAA program. His offensive ability has allowed the Grizzlies coaches to move some scorers around in the lineup.
“Nic is a big body, has good hands, moves the puck well,” Mignone said. “He helps us stretch our lineup a bit, being able to split up (leading scorer) Vlad (Sorokin) and Richard and give us two lines that are pretty solid.
“We were really pretty dependent on that one line producing. If they were struggling, we weren’t getting a lot of offense, but with those two guys split up, it makes us harder to match up against and gets more guys involved offensively.”