WILLMAR — After three straight weekends of late-night bus rides after games, staying at home sounds like a good idea for the Willmar WarHawks.
“I’m very excited and I know the boys are, too,” said goaltender Luke Weberg. “It’ll be fun because it’ll be a home-and-home. We don’t have to get up and prepare for a bus ride. We can go straight to the rink and get focused and we can get in as early as we want.
“Hopefully, we’ll have the energy to take a couple (this weekend).”
Opening the 2020-21 season with five straight road games, Willmar has its home opener at 7:10 p.m. Friday against the West Division-leading North Iowa Bulls. The WarHawks will go back to the Willmar Civic Center Saturday for a 7:10 p.m. faceoff against the New Ulm Steel.
“It’ll be nice to break in the Civic Center,” said Willmar head coach Kirk Olimb. “It’s a great rink, one of the nicest in the league. All the boys are really excited and we got to practice on the big sheet this week. We hope to have a decent crowd.”
With COVID-19 restrictions keeping games within the five-team West Division, the WarHawks have had the benefit of not being far from home, with trips to Alexandria, New Ulm and Sauk Rapids (for Granite City). But, road games have required a quick turnaround from arrival to the puck drop.
“At Granite City, we’re allowed to show up an hour before game time so we don’t have much time to stretch or get prepared,” said WarHawks forward Tyler Corbid. “You’ve got to hustle and get ready. It’s been tough but a lot of fun.”
In the opening stretch, the WarHawks are sitting at 2-3-0-0, with a season-opening 4-1 win against New Ulm on Oct. 2. The second victory came on Oct. 10 in overtime against Alexandria, 7-6.
Weberg has both of Willmar’s wins in net. A returning player from Omaha, Nebraska, Weberg has a 3.49 goals against average with an .891 save percentage.
“When I’m out there, I’m doing everything I can and I’m hoping my teammates are doing everything they can, too,” Weberg said. “In those two wins, it’s a great feeling when you have that team in front of you in a big game, especially in that overtime win because I was’t on top of my game but we battled and ended up winning.”
Corbid, from Fargo, North Dakota, leads the WarHawks’ offense with four goals and five points while sporting a plus-2 plus/minus rating. He scored goals in the first four games of the season.
On his strong start, Corbid quickly credited his teammates and linemen. “It’s not just me; I get a lot of help.”
Michael Sweetland (Stillwater) and Jack Willis (Chaska) each have four points while six different WarHawks — Ben Johnson, Ethan Light, Elbridge DeKraai, Cayden Sunde, Owen Thomas Spencer Platt — have three points thus far.
The offensive effort has been balanced, but Olimb is aiming for his team to grind out more goals. Willmar’s 17 goals ranked fourth out of five-team West.
“We have to do a better job of playing it simple,” Olimb said. “We’ve had some highlight-reel goals, and everyone wants to be fancy, but we got to work on getting the puck to the net, getting some rebounds, getting some tips and crash-and-bang the net. Pretty plays will happen, but when you look for them constantly, they are few and far between.”
Olimb added, “It’s been scoring by committee, which is great. Now we got to work on simplifying our game.”
On defense, the WarHawks look to drop their division-worst 5.4 goals allowed per game average.
“I’ve been working on tracking the puck and backdoor plays so I can get over and make big saves when we need them,” said Weberg, who is in a rotation with Cooper Olson (6.50 GAA; 84.7 save percentage) and Hunter Burian (6.00 GAA, 86.0 save percentage).
“As far as the defense, we’re working on staying on our man,” Weberg continued. “We play a man-zone defense and it’s crucial to stay on your guy. You can tell when someone loses their man because it can lead to an easy tap-in goal. We got to stay on our man and avoid those tap-ins.”
Finally on home ice Friday and Saturday, the WarHawks look to get back in the win column after dropping both games last weekend to Alexandria (5-3) and Granite City (6-1). Friday will be the first meeting of the season between Willmar and North Iowa.
“So far, we know Granite City is a really good team,” Olimb said. “We got some work to do, but we’re right in the mix with Alexandria and New Ulm. North Iowa has a good team from what I’ve seen on paper.
So far, I’m happy with the two wins. … It’s a good start to the year in a very tough division.”