Thundering down the stretch

Published 9:32 am Thursday, March 18, 2010

There’s just five games left in the regular season for the Albert Lea Thunder and they hold a three-point lead over North Iowa in the North American Hockey League Central Division standings.

Getting to that position was no small task and maintaining that standing won’t be either.

Albert Lea head coach Chuck Linkenheld knows that and has prepared the team for the final five games of the season, which begin Friday against North Iowa at City Arena and Saturday against Owatonna at City Arena.

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“Even though we accomplished something we really haven’t,” Linkenheld said. “Friday is even more important than the game (last) Sunday. Friday’s game is huge, we’ve got to have that.”

The obvious reason the Thunder (17-31-5) need Friday’s game is to increase its slim lead to five points. A victory would mean Albert Lea would need a victory against Owatonna Saturday and an Outlaws loss on Saturday and Sunday to secure the team’s first trip to the playoffs.

For a team that has experience so much tumult in one season reaching the playoffs would be quite the accomplishment. But for three players on the roster reaching the playoffs would feel more special.

Derek Docken, Niko Kapetanovic and Chris Cass have played the past two seasons with the Thunder and experienced all of the dramatics from the start.

“This was the main reason I came back to Albert Lea,” Docken said of the chance at the playoffs. “People are finally starting to see that we’re not a joke anymore.”

The Thunder players may be the ones laughing now as they’ve won six of their past seven games and enter the weekend on the heels of a three-game sweep of North Iowa.

The team has coalesced during its recent hot streak and players recently brought in have found some continuity with teammates.

“We believe in everybody in each other from our goaltending to our defense to our scoring,” Kapetanovic said. “The new guys we brought in down the road have helped us out and created competition for practice to make those lineups for the weekend.”

Players like Colton Warner, Zach May, Joe Kozlak and others made an impact almost immediately. Warner scored two game-winning goals last weekend. Though it hasn’t been easy for Linkenheld to acquire players, the type of players who have come to the team seem to fit the mentality of the rest of the team right now, one where every player seems to have a chip on their shoulder for whatever reason.

“Some of them were traded and didn’t want to be trade,” Linkenheld said. “It’s nice to have guys like that because they have a fresh new outlook.”

Linkenheld has made nearly 20 roster moves since taking over as head coach and now the pieces have started to come together at the right time.

Last weekend Linkenheld made sure the team focused on each game, one day at a time and he continues to drive the point home with a week and a half left in the season. He’s talked about maintaining a balance between confidence and having a swagger, the latter the team has to avoid if it wants to reach the playoffs.

“I wouldn’t say we’re riding a high horse by any means, but we’re playing really good hockey,” Docken said.