The opening weekend of the North American Hockey League season was an unquestioned success for the Chippewa Steel.
The team opened play with a pair of victories over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs last Friday and Saturday to give the home fans plenty to cheer about in the team’s first two contests at Chippewa Area Ice Arena.
The Steel started the season with a 3-1 win on Friday night, digging out of an early 1-0 hole to earn a win in front of 1,112 fans at a jam-packed arena. A three-goal third period helped the Steel take control of the second game of a 3-2 victory to complete the two-game sweep. There was plenty to like coming out of the two victories, but Steel coach Al Rooney said first and foremost he liked the structure and fundamental play his team showed.
“Our work ethic and compete level especially Friday night – I thought we played better Friday night than Saturday – the first ten minutes of both games were weak but once we got into our systems and structure I thought our guys responded well,” Rooney said.
Defensively the Steel limited a potent Ice Dogs attack, an effort Rooney said extended to all players on the ice.
“In transitions our forwards backchecked in a manner that really slowed Fairbanks down and frustrated them, which helped our D do their job better,” Rooney said. “Team defense was a strength for us and we responded well and if we continue to do that, good things are going to happen for us.”
Connor Szmul scored a pair of goals over the weekend while Jacob Dirks, Austin Mikesch and Connor Zilisch each found the net once with Jordan Gonzalez and Grisha Gotovets having a pair of helpers each. Goaltenders Owen Zdunski and Josh Langford each started one game between the pipes and were solid. Zdunski allowed one goal in the opener with 21 saves before Langford stopped 24 of 26 shots in the second game.
While the team has plenty to be proud of as it heads to play four games at the NAHL Showcase this week in Blaine, Minn. beginning on Wednesday, Rooney said his young team can’t get too high or low regardless of how well or poorly it is playing.
“We can’t get comfortable so we’ve got to find a challenge for each night and each day in practice,” Rooney said.
The Steel will see plenty of challenges this week as they play games on four consecutive days at the showcase, an event that brings the teams of the league together for college scouts to see. That stretch starts with a matchup against the Jamestown Rebels on Wednesday before facing the Amarillo Bulls on Thursday, Lone Star Brahmas on Friday and concluding the showcase by playing the Topeka Pilots on Saturday.
Rooney was an assistant coach for the Brahmas during the team’s 2016-17 Robertson Cup championship season.
The team made three roster cuts earlier this week to get down to 26 and will need to make three more by the end of September.
Last weekend’s first two games were the culmination of a lot of work from a lot of people and organizations, work that started earlier this year when the Steel first moved to Chippewa Falls from the Coulee Region after being sold and renamed. Rooney credited team business manager Jake Serwe and others as big parts of the opening weekend.
“The biggest thing is the team played well together on the ice and I thought the organization and community came together well off the ice to help the game be pulled off,” Rooney said. “What we felt all the long coming here was this was going to be a real team-first organization and not just organization but the community volunteers and this is a volunteer-based rink, everybody really rolled their sleeves up to make it happen. I said on my Twitter account that there’s a lot of people beyond the players on the ice that were responsible for this (opening) weekend and the success we had off the ice with the crowds.”