It’s been 61 days since the Rochester Grizzlies played a game on the Rochester Recreation Center ice.
What amounted to a two-month road trip for the Grizzlies felt at times as though it lasted two years.
But one thing that didn’t change while Rochester’s North American 3 Hockey League team was away from Rochester: The Grizzlies know how to win.
Since Nov. 14, the last time the Grizzlies played a home game, Rochester has a 9-2-0 record and outscored its opponents 50-11 over those 11 games. The Grizzlies will carry that momentum -- they shut out the St. Louis Blues in a two-game series last weekend at St. Louis -- with them this weekend as they prepare to host St. Louis at 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday. State guidelines limit attendance at the games to 150 fans each night.
“We’re pumped,” Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said earlier this week. “We got home from St. Louis at 12:30 (Monday morning) and had a little meeting before everyone went home. It was ‘OK, now we’re home. We get to play at home the rest of this month.
“It’s just the little things. Things like laundry, the skate sharpening, that kind of stuff. Everybody is just more comfortable with their routine. That’s a big thing. And the guys are pretty hungry to play in front of our fans.”
While the Grizzlies would love to have a packed grandstand, they’re just happy to be playing in front of their own grandstand, whether there are people in it or not. Rochester brings an 18-3-0 record into the series and sole possession of first place in the NA3HL Central Division.
“Going through all the awkward situations, having to deal with adversity all the time, it’s brought the guys closer together,” Ratzloff said. “We spent a lot of time on the bus. That brought them tighter together. Last year’s team was a really close team, and this one is getting really close to that.
“The guys are playing for each other, turning into a bunch of brothers. That’s probably the best positive that’s come out of dealing with all the adversity.”
GOALIES STAY HOT
Rochester is the highest-scoring team in the Central Division, with 87 goals in 21 games. The Grizzlies’ success this season has largely started with their effort on the back end, as they are also the best defensive team -- by far -- in the division. Rochester has allowed only 25 goals this season. Second-place Peoria is has allowed the second-fewest, with 40.
A talented corps of Grizzlies blue-liners can take credit for those numbers, but goalies Shane Soderwall and Zach Wiese have been just as big a part of that defensive effort as anyone.
Wiese, a 2020 Owatonna HIgh School graduate who is 7-1-0 as a starter this season, leads the NA3HL with a miniscule 0.88 goals-against average and .960 save percentage. Soderwall, who holds a 9-2-0 record, is fourth in the league with a 1.40 GAA and third with a .945 save percentage.
The Grizzlies, in just their third season as a franchise, have quickly become a hotbed for goalies. In addition to Soderwall and Wiese this season, they had the NA3HL Goalie of the Year last year, Mathias Backstrom.
Wiese and Soderwall were the stars of the weekend last weekend for Rochester. Wiese was fantastic in a 34-save, 1-0 shutout at St. Louis on Saturday. Soderwall backed that up with a 12-save performance in a 5-0 shutout on Sunday.
“It’s huge for Zach, and for Shane, too,” Ratzloff said. “Shane didn’t see a lot of shots, but he made a big stop on a shorthanded breakaway. … Having shutouts against a team like St. Louis is a good confidence booster for them both, and it really, really helps the rest of the team. They know ‘we need to be better and not put our goalie in that situation,’ but it gives them confidence that if they’re not at their best, the goalie has their backs.”