Thunder begin first playoff series

Published 10:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2010

Being an underdog in the world of sports hasn’t been a bad thing lately and add Albert Lea Thunder head coach Chuck Linkenheld to the list of people who doesn’t mind accepting the underdog role.

Ask Linkenheld about the Thunder’s first round opponent Bismarck and he’ll say the Bobcats are unquestionably the more talented team and given the season record it’d be hard to argue against him.

Fourth-seeded Albert Lea meets the top-seeded Bobcats Friday and Saturday in Bismarck in the first round of the North American Hockey League playoffs in a best-of-five series. The series comes to Albert Lea next Friday.

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The Thunder have gone 3-8 against Bismarck this season and been outscored 47-22 in 11 meetings.

“I wouldn’t say we match up well,” Linkenheld said. “We have to play over our head in order to match up. We need to execute and we need to play at 110 percent. They’re a good team and you cannot make mistakes and play poorly against Bismarck. They’re too talented and too well coached.”

The Bobcats (39-11-8) ran away with the Central Division this season and won the division by 18 points and have eight Division I players. Four players have scored 20 or more goals. For comparison Albert Lea has one player who has scored 20 goals, Anthony Iaquinto.

The two teams met last weekend and Bismarck swept the Thunder in a two-game set with a 4-1 and 6-3 victory.

“It’s going to be a challenge, no doubt about it,” Linkenheld said. “As a coach I don’t mind the underdog role this late in the season.”

For the majority of the franchise’s existence Albert Lea has held the underdog role. In the franchise’s infancy it took a long time before team’s started playing their top goaltender against the Thunder. Albert Lea reaching the playoffs is an accomplishment for a team that has played through a pay-to-play scandal and plenty of other turmoil in the past two seasons.

The Thunder have gone from the laughingstock of the North American Hockey League to a playoff team and reaching the playoffs is rewarding for players like Derek Docken, Niko Kapetanovic, and Chris Cass who have seen all the highs and lows, Linkenheld said.

Reaching the postseason has been rewarding for Linkenheld, too. Just a month into the job Linkenheld had to deal with the pay-to-play scandal and a frozen roster. After the league unfroze the roster he revamped the lineup and brought in players who could help the team despite the team not being a desirable situation. Still, Linkenheld found players who wanted an opportunity to show they could play in the league and felt they had a chip on the shoulder, and he forged a unit that has gone 8-4 in its last 12 games.

The addition of Iaquinto has helped. The burly forward has 16 goals in 27 games since joining the team and his play will be a key this weekend in Bismarck.

“Anthony was the piece of the puzzle we were missing,” Linkenheld said. “We were missing what I call an alpha dog. One guy that took control and is a tough guy. We needed that guy.”

The Thunder should be near full strength for the best of five series. Defensemen Bryan Mitchell and Blake Adams will miss this weekend’s games, but Patrick Kinkopf is expected to return after missing time because of a concussion.