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Rochester Grizzlies hit the road this weekend with a championship on their minds

Rochester can wrap up its third consecutive NA3HL Central Division championship this weekend. But it'll have to go through its top rival to do so.

Shane Soderwall.jpg
Shane Soderwall stops a shot for the Rochester Grizzlies during a playoff game against the Peoria Mustangs last spring at the Rochester Recreation Center. The Grizzlies and Mustangs have been nearly even over the past two seasons, with the Grizzlies winning 10 of the 17 matchups between the teams. The NA3HL Central Division rivals meet again this weekend in Peoria, with the regular season division title likely at stake.
Post Bulletin file photo

The Rochester Grizzlies are walking into a playoff-like atmosphere this weekend.

That’s a good thing, because the North American 3 Hockey League playoffs are less than a month away.

The Grizzlies head to Peoria, Illinois, for a two-game series against their top rival, the Peoria Mustangs, tonight and Saturday. Two wins — including at least one in regulation — would lock up a third straight Central Division championship for the Grizzlies.

But it won’t be easy.

“I think the message (to our players) last time we were there is, we have to play a gritty, playoff-style game,” Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzloff said. “Peoria is a tough place to win. They’re very good defensively, they block a ton of shots and they’re always good in their own building.

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“It’s just a tough place to play, a playoff atmosphere.”

Rochester brings a 33-6-2 mark (68 points) into the games, which are set to begin at 7 p.m. tonight and 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Peoria is 29-9-3 and seven points back of Rochester, with just six regular season games remaining for both teams.

The rivals have already met six times this season — four times in Rochester, twice in Peoria — with the home team winning all six of those games.

Last season, the Grizzlies and Mustangs split all four of their regular-season series. They met again in the best-of-3 NA3HL Central Division postseason championship series. Peoria won the first game of that series at home, before Rochester won two in a row on its home ice to win the series and advance to the Fraser Cup playoffs, the NA3HL’s championship tournament.

The Grizzlies don’t expect this weekend’s series to be any different. It will be physical and fast.

“This series is just what we need going into the playoffs,” Ratzloff said. “We learned from our first trip over there this year — we lost 4-1 and 1-0 (on Jan. 7-8) — that it’s a hard place play when you’re not getting to the front of the net and not being a little nasty and paying a price.

“Hopefully we’ve learned that lesson and are ready to go this weekend.”

A division championship would guarantee the Grizzlies will have home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the postseason. Just how important is that? The Grizzlies have never lost a playoff game at the Rochester Recreation Center. They’re 5-0 in their brief three-plus year history.

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“It’d be really good to get it done this weekend,” Ratzloff said of possibly clinching the division title, “then we’d have four (regular season) games to change the lineup up a little bit and maybe give some guys who are dinged up a night or two off.”

Bruins looking to regain first place

The Austin Bruins lost their hold on first place in the North American Hockey League Central Division last weekend when they fell 6-2 and 4-3 in overtime to division rival St. Cloud.

The good news for the Bruins is that they’ll get two more shots at St. Cloud this weekend. Austin could regain that top spot in the Central, it could lose ground, or it could tread water.

Austin is 1-3-1 against St. Cloud so far this season.

The rivals will meet Friday in St. Cloud and Saturday at 7 p.m. at Riverside Arena in Austin.

Scoring first and not taking their skates off the gas will be priority No. 1 for the Bruins this weekend.

Of the 122 minutes, 29 seconds the teams played against each other last weekend, the Bruins played with a lead for just 3:42.

St. Cloud, coached by former University of Minnesota great Corey Millen, is the hottest team in the NAHL right now.

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The Norsemen have won 10 consecutive games. Their last loss? Jan. 14 at Riverside Arena, a 6-3 loss to the Bruins.

Austin is 4-5-1 in its past 10. It will need its top players to continue to lead the way. Leading scorer Jens Richards has six points in the past five games, while third-leading scorer Sutter Muzzatti has nine points in the past eight games.

Jason Feldman is the sports editor of the Post Bulletin. In addition to managing the four-person sports staff at the PB, Jason covers high school football, golf and high school and junior hockey. Readers can reach Jason at 507-281-7430 or jfeldman@postbulletin.com.
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