Albert Lea, Outlaws set for 2nd bout

Published 8:35 am Thursday, December 11, 2008

It has been two months since the Albert Lea Thunder and North Iowa Outlaws have gotten together for a Central Division matchup and that might be a good thing.

Although the teams have met just once this season the matchup has become a heated rivalry. Last time out the Outlaws got a 5-4 victory over the Thunder in Mason City, but the game was marred by bad blood in the second period.

Three fights occurred in the period and there were three game ejections. Zach Lewis and Jake Armijo were thrown out for their part in an altercation that took place near center ice. Lewis and Armijo were standing up for teammate Matt Sempeck who was checked hard in open ice on a questionable hit. North Iowa forward Joe Harren was also thrown out of the game for his part in the fight.

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Much of the bad blood stemmed from a preseason scrimmage between the two teams that was at the City Arena.

“The first North Iowa scrimmage was an absolute bloodbath,” Armijo said. “This is going to be one hell of a matchup.”

There were no referees at the scrimmage and no one dropped the gloves, but the scrimmage was chippy to say the least.

“It has turned into a pretty heated rivalry,” said Thunder forward Niko Kapetanovic. “Kids were calling each other out at the last game.”

The time away has likely cooled some of the heat in the rivalry and Albert Lea is focused on picking up some more points this weekend when it hosts the Outlaws at the City Arena Friday and Saturday night.

“For once we’re not thinking let’s go out and get one win out of the weekend,” Kapetanovic said. “We’re thinking about going for the sweep.”

The Thunder is thinking that way after playing two strong games against the Blizzard last weekend in Alexandria. Albert Lea picked up its second win of the season Saturday night with a 5-1 victory. The win gave the team evidence of its improvement. The Thunder has picked up four points in its last seven games and the team has taken on a better outlook on the season lately.

“We know we’re in it,” Armijo said. “We know we can do it, we know we can win.”

The atmosphere inside the locker room has changed and some of that has to do with the continued strong play of goaltender Tom Lescovich. Lescovich made 46 saves in the win and 33 in the 2-1 Friday night loss. While he has played strong, he is nursing a groin injury. Albert Lea head coach Brad Zangs said Lescovich will play this weekend, but the team has limited his activity in practice this week.

“With Lesky (Lescovich) between the pipes anything is possible,” Armijo said. “The kid puts us in a position to win every game.”

The Thunder is in a precarious position this weekend because a poor showing could undo much of the work the team has done in its last seven games. Zangs said it would be devastating, but if the team can continue to play within the system he has put in place, things will fall into place.

“We have to play in the system because we’ve proven the system works,” Zangs said. “It still comes back to practice preparation. I’ve got them working hard every day. They might be crabby, they might have something else going on, but they still work hard every day at practice.”

Albert Lea has started its last two games quickly, scoring in the first period in both games. Chris Cass and Armijo scored for the Thunder in the first period in the last two games. Zangs says the team will need to continue that trend.

“North Iowa is another very strong team,” Zangs said. “We need to start fast and finish fast through the game.”

The Thunder lost two players from the roster. Forward John Affolter returned to the Peoria Mustangs, a Tier-III Junior A team in Illinois. Defenseman Jeff Lesmeister left the team after last weekend to accept an academic scholarship to St. John’s University in Collegville, Minn.