Thunder face elimination game

Published 4:10 am Friday, April 9, 2010

Think the Albert Lea Thunder feel pressure about being down two games to none to Bismarck in the first round of the North American Hockey League Central Division playoffs? Not this group. Not after everything it’s faced this season.

When the Thunder hit the ice Friday at City Arena for Game 3 against the Bobcats it will be the last junior hockey game for a handful of players, but it could also be the last game for the franchise.

“It was definitely huge achievement to make the playoffs,” said Albert Lea forward Alex Niestrom, who is in his final season of eligibility for junior hockey. “To come from a really bad beginning of the season … then to come out and have some light at the end of the tunnel has been great. I hope that we’re not done.”

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Facing an elimination game brings pressure, but the Thunder have existed in a vacuum chamber because of the pay-to-play scandal and the coaching carousel that has taken place in the past two years.

“We’ve dealt with far worse things than being down 2-0,” said Albert Lea forward Brian Nehring.

The Thunder return to City Arena after losing 4-2 in the series opener and 8-2 in Game 2, but have had success at home against Bismarck. Two of Albert Lea’s three victories against the Bobcats have come at City Arena.

“We’ve beaten Bismarck before,” Niestrom said. “It’s not like they’re an unbeatable team. If they think they can play like they did Friday night and make the Roberstson Cup through us and everybody else, it’s not going to happen.”

Niestrom and others felt the Thunder played well enough to win last Friday’s game and that has inspired confidence that they have a chance to force a fourth game.

“They’re prepared to carry on the season,” said assistant coach Tom Maroste.

So is the coaching staff. Head coach Chuck Linkenheld spent Thursday in Chicago, scouting a major midgets tournament. He’s spent time away from the rink preparing for the upcoming draft and finding prospective tenders.

“We’re taking it as we’re having a team,” Maroste said.

Maroste and Linkenheld will move forward win or lose Friday and remain focused on the team.

Rumblings of potential owners persist, and Maroste said the NAHL is still taking applications.

“They’re (NAHL) taking applications and I firmly believe if people come see the setup here there’d be a lot of interest,” he said.