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Trio of goalies key to Rochester Grizzlies hopes of clinching fifth straight division title

Feb. 1—ROCHESTER — The Rochester Grizzlies are in the driver's seat to win a fifth consecutive division championship, and their first-ever in the North American 3 Hockey League West Division.

The Grizzlies moved back into the league's deepest and toughest division this season — the same division they finished third in during their inaugural season in 2018-19. The following year, the Grizzlies moved into the Central Division and ruled it from the get-go, winning four consecutive regular-season division titles.

Now, back in the West, the Grizzlies (29-5-3 overall) have 10 games remaining in the regular season and they hold a seven-point lead over second-place Granite City (26-8-2) and a nine-point lead over third-place Alexandria (25-7-2) going into this weekend's games.

If Rochester is, indeed, going to capture a fifth division championship in its sixth season as a franchise, here are five keys for its stretch run:

The Grizzlies are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, and have lost in regulation just five times in their 37 games this season. Teams earn two points for victories and one point for an overtime loss or a shootout loss. In that regard, Rochester has been outstanding at earning points.

How they've earned those points, though, has been a bit of a roller coaster. Two of Rochester's last three games have left some concerns, with losses to sub-.500 teams, including a 6-5 regulation loss against Mason City on Jan. 20 (a game in which Rochester trailed 6-3 with 11 minutes remaining) and a 4-3 shootout loss at home last Saturday against St. Louis, a team that has won just seven times in 37 games.

Being back in the West Division has been a great thing for the Grizzlies coaches and players, head coach Tyler Veen said.

"I love it," Veen said. "You could argue that it could be the top three teams in the country. With the level of play we showed at the (NA3HL) Showcase in (late) December collectively between us three. That's no (disrespect) to any other teams in the league. It's just very strong here, playing the teams in the West night in, night out. It makes our players better and it makes us better as coaches."

The good news for the Grizzlies: They've largely shown an ability to win games in any manner. They opened January with six consecutive wins, those coming by an average of 4.5 goals. And they'll be battle-tested heading into the playoffs: Eight of Rochester's final 10 regular-season games are against either Alexandria or Granite City. The Grizzlies are 1-2-2 against Granite City, 2-1-0 against Alexandria.

Rochester hasn't faced Alexandria since Dec. 2, and hasn't faced Granite City since Dec. 9, but the Grizzlies play home-and-home series against those teams the next two weekends. They host Alexandria at 7:05 p.m. Friday, then go to Alexandria on Saturday. Granite City comes to Rochester on Friday, Feb. 9, and the Grizzlies go there on Saturday, Feb. 10.

"I think having that schedule is definitely good," Veen said. "At the end of the day, no night is an easy night. When you're playing against teams that are right on your heels and competing for the division title, that adds a whole other element. We'll see one of Alexandria, Granite City or Mason City in the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully we prevail there and we'll face another one in the second round. These games are going to be huge for our guys to set the tone, like, 'OK, we're playing in the playoffs a month early.' It's go-time now. No days off, at all."

It's a good problem to have: Not enough lineup spots each night for players who have earned it through their practice and play. That's specifically the case in goal and on defense for this Grizzlies team.

In goal, Mayo grad Tate Cothern and rookies Nick Kurtiak and Riley Swanson have split time almost equally. Cothern is 10-2-1 with a 1.72 goals-against average (fourth-best in the entire NA3HL) and a .933 save percentage. Kurtiak is 9-2-1, 2.40 and .902, while Swanson is 10-1-1, 2.77, .868. All three are hungry to play on a nightly basis, but they also understand that their internal competition has made them all better.

"Having those three, it's good, it builds competition for them to be on their game, ready to go," Veen said. "... It builds a sense of confidence within our group, too, that no matter who's in net we can still win. All three have done a great job handling it and having the attitude of 'we just want to win, and it's working.'"

Rochester has allowed the second-fewest goals per game in the division (2.40), just behind Alexandria (2.32), and the Grizzlies have the best goal differential in the division (plus-91). A big key to that has been the play of a deep and experienced defensive corps.

Just as the Grizzlies' coaches have a tough decision to make with their goalies each game night, the same tough choices apply to the defensive lineup.

That group includes four second-year Grizzlies: Century grad Matt Haun, Leo Milan, Ty Petzke and Gavin Mears. It also includes five players who are new to Rochester this season: Dre Berndt, Gavin Griffin, Cael Knutson, Twanne Haisma and Miles Clark.

Haun is second on the team in assists (23) and third in points (34). He also leads the Grizzlies with 5 power-play goals. Milan has the team's top plus/minus rating (+32) and is fifth on the team in assists (17).

"We've kind of kept that same D-corps together all year and they've played well," Veen said. "Now it's time for them to set a physical tone, how we are going to play in the playoffs. That's how it's going to be with other teams, so our guys have to set a tone and have to be good every single time you're out there."

The Grizzlies have also added three new faces — one of them a familiar face — to the locker room in recent weeks. The team announced last week that forward Ryan Berglund is back. He had 28 points in 37 games with Rochester last season, and played in 14 games in the NAHL this season.

Rochester also added a pair of forwards on Jan. 18. Tommy Woods came to the team via an intra-division trade with Granite City. Woods had 14 points in 20 games with the Lumberjacks, and has two assists through his first four games with the Grizzlies. Andrew Lahai, a 5-10, 170-pound native of Houston, Texas, joined the Grizzlies from the Pueblo (Colo.) Bulls in the NCDC. He has scored twice in his first four games.

"We didn't have as many guys as we've carried in the past, so this helps our depth, for sure," Veen said. "Those new guys have been good. Tommy's was good in Granite, he just kind of got lost in the shuffle there and it was a good move for him. Andrew is a good middle-of-the-lineup guy who just wants to eat pucks (block shots) and work hard."