Tigers get back to full strength

Published 9:17 am Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday has likely been on the mind of Grant Stadheim for the past 40 days.

Stadheim, a senior forward for the Albert Lea boys’ hockey team, will make his return to game action Thursday against Mankato West in the opening round of the Section 1A playoffs for the first time since breaking his wrist against Red Wing Jan. 17 at City Arena. Stadheim is the final piece to Albert Lea’s top line that is poised to help guide the Tigers through a wide-open Section 1A tournament.

Albert Lea certainly missed Stadheim’s presence in the games that followed his injury as they dropped three straight games at one point, but the Tigers have righted the ship recently, winning five out of their last six as Stadheim returns to the fold.

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The past six days of practice has given Stadheim time to reacquaint himself with his linemates Tyler Prihoda and Jordan Prescher-Smerud and by all accounts it hasn’t taken long for the line to coalesce.

“They don’t look to me like they’ve missed a beat,” said Albert Lea head coach Roy Nystrom.

Stadheim had 23 points in 14 games prior to missing the next 11 due to injury. He’ll rejoin Prihoda and Prescher-Smerud, who have carried a lot of the offensive workload this season. Prihoda finished the regular season with 34 goals and 19 assists while Prescher-Smerud had 20 goals and 33 assists.

“With Stadheim back that first line is really clicking again, even watching them in practice the last few days,” said senior defenseman Blake Adams.

That top line of the fourth seeded Tigers will have to contend with one of the top lines in the section when the No. 5 seed Scarlets come to the City Arena Thursday.

Andrew Bruggeman leads the Scarlets scoring threat with his 44 goals and 18 assists on the season. West finished the regular season with 124 goals and that ranked No. 1 among teams in the Big Nine Conference.

“We’re certainly going to have to contain their No. 1 line, but I’m sure they’re saying the same thing about ours,” Nystrom said.

Thursday will be yet again another playoff meeting between Albert Lea and Mankato West. The two teams met last season in the section semifinals and the Scarlets came up with a 5-2 win over the Tigers as they eventually advanced to the state tournament.

The two teams have developed a strong rivalry over the past three seasons. Last year the two teams split the series during the regular season with West winning the first meeting 3-2 in overtime and Albert Lea grabbing a 3-2 in the second meeting.

In the 2006-07 season the Tigers and Scarlets split once again with West taking the first meeting 3-1 and Albert Lea getting a 5-1 win in the second meeting.

This season’s series also had its share of excitement as the Tigers prevailed in the first meeting 5-3 with an empty net goal in the second game of the season and won an 8-5 shootout Jan. 13.

“We’ve had a lot of barn burners with them,” Stadheim said. “It’s really fun because of the atmosphere. They bring a lot of fans and we also get a lot of fans here. I think it’s going to be an offensive game.”

Stadheim recorded three points while Prihoda had four points and Prescher-Smerud three in the 8-5 win. But as always in playoff hockey it’s going to come down to defense and goaltending.

“I think whoever is playing well and gets good goaltending has a good chance,” Nystrom said. “We just have to play our game and our game is good forechecking and our goaltender, of course, is going to have to play well, and we’re going to have to play well in our defensive zone. I don’t think it’s any different than any other team’s got to do.”

West goalie Adam Trautman comes into the game with a 2.66 goals against average and .893 save percentage, while Albert Lea’s goaltender John Wrolson has a 3.13 goals against average and .886 save percentage.

The Scarlets finished tied in the Big Nine with Mayo as the stingiest team in the conference with allowing 70 goals during the season.

During their three-game losing streak, the Tigers allowed 19 goals and were inconsistent with their play in their own zone.

“We were kind of lackadaisical,” Adams said. “We just needed to play our positions, we were kind of running around there for a while. We’d have two defensemen in the corner and nobody out in front of the net.”

Albert Lea got back to picking up players in the slot and pushing attackers to the outside and the strategy has worked.

For the Tigers the key will be the same as it has been all season — an aggressive forecheck and working hard.

“That’s one of our big things, we work hard and we play the body then the bounces will come to us,” Adams said.

Playing the body against West will be an important part to the game, Adams said.

“They get really frustrated when you can play the body on them,” he said.

The winner will move to the semifinals and will face the winner of the game between No. 1 seed Red Wing and No. 8 seed Northfield at the Rochester Rec Center at 2 p.m. Saturday.