WILLMAR — Minnesota teams in the North American 3 Hockey League saw their seasons halted when Emergency Executive Order 20-99 went into effect in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Since the teams were allowed back on the ice, there aren’t any in the league, particularly its West Division, that has performed better than the Willmar WarHawks.
Following the Jan. 15 restart, Willmar has won 9 of 13 games by a combined margin of 59-29.
Only division-leading North Iowa has more victories within that time frame with 10.
The WarHawks entered Friday’s game at Alexandria with a 14-13 record and tied with the Granite City Lumberjacks for second place in the NA3HL West Division with 28 points.
Prior to the stoppage, Willmar was 5-9 with a minus-25 goal differential. Now, the team is plus-five in that department thanks to winning seven games by three goals or more in this recent run. However, the WarHawks’ most recent win came last Saturday when they came back from a 4-1 third-period deficit to defeat the Lumberjacks 5-4.
“We’ve had a wide variety of ways to win,” Willmar head coach Kirk Olimb said. “It’s a little bit easier and nicer when you just get out to that early lead and keep that lead going, but you’ll take the wins however they come. It’s been really fun to coach these guys.”
Much of the credit for the team’s turnaround has to go to players who weren’t with Willmar with the 2020-21 season started.
In just 13 games with the club, forwards Alex Kupka and Lewis Rowan are among the team leaders in points. Kupka, who began the year with the NAHL’s St. Cloud Norsemen, has nine goals and nine assists. Rowan joined the team at the restart and has eight assists and nine goals, including a team-best five on the power play.
Dylan Gajewski (5 G, 9 A) and Isaiah Thomas (3 G, 11 A) are other newcomers to contribute from the forward spot.
Elsewhere, defensemen Hunter Bjorge and Gavin Uckele have sured up the special teams unit.
Within their run, the WarHawks are 14-for-47 (30%) with the extra man on the ice. Bjorge has five power-play assists. Only forward Jack Willis (seven) and Gajewski (six) have more. Uckele has a goal and two assists on the power play to go with a pair shorthanded goals.
Uckele and Bjorge each are tied for second in team plus-minus with a plus-nine.
With the offense and special teams rolling, the defense hasn’t needed to take chances with its forwards. There’s no need to risk odd-man rushes if the offense is putting up numbers on the board. Instead, Willmar can rely on tough man-to-man coverage and keeping its opponent and the puck in front of them at all times.
“We have such talented forwards that we don’t have to sacrifice defense for offense,” Olimb said.
The results have followed. Willmar allowed three goals or more on 12 occasions during the first half of the season. Since Jan. 15, the team has relinquished three or more scores just four times.
With their defense playing well, Will Pinney and Lukas Haugen have spent most of the time behind them in net.
Joining the club from the Norsemen, Pinney is 5-1 with a 2.00 goals-against-average and a save percentage of .937. Haugen is in his second season with the WarHawks and is 3-3 (2.34 GAA, .923 SV%).
“Until you give up zero, you’re giving up too many, so we’re always working on that, but our goalies have been tremendous,” Olimb said. “Giving up that magic number of two or less, I like our chances to win.”
The restart road for Willmar to this point hasn’t been a perfectly smooth one. WarHawks leading scorer Michael Sweetland (14 G, 13 A) has been out of action since Feb. 10 after breaking his collarbone in the team’s win over New Ulm. Sweetland hopes to return toward the end of the season.
Looking ahead, the road for Willmar moving forward is a busy one. Beginning with its game against the Blizzard, the WarHawks play six games in nine days, three of which will be against the division-leading Bulls.
“The schedule is pretty intense this next stretch. A lot is going to be decided in this next week and a half and we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
While the WarHawks’ recent turnaround is a call back to some of their better seasons, the organization have also gone retro for a good cause.
The team has partnered with Jennie-O Turkey Store for Community Nights. On these nights, the players wear throwback jerseys designed to replicate the sweaters worn by past Willmar High School teams and are later put up for auction.
“The one thing our organization really wanted to do is we wanted to partner with somebody to be able to give back to the community that so graciously supports us,” game-day operations and promotions coordinator Nate Schueller said.
Schueller said discussions with Jennie-O on this promotion began last April.
Although the Cardinal colors are red and white and the WarHawks’ throwback is grey, the lettering across the front of the jersey replicates to the ones from past Cardinal teams.
The team has worn the throwbacks twice (Jan. 29 and Feb. 13) and will wear them again when they face the Bulls on Mar. 6 and against the Steel on Mar. 19.
All proceeds go to the Kandiyohi County Food Shelf and The United Way. Bids can be placed on the team’s website. As for 3 p.m. Friday, the WarHawks have raised $1,285.
“It was really a nice way to tie in the Willmar community, the Willmar High School team, and our partnership with Jennie-O to do a retro jersey that we can put on for auction and are available throughout the season,” Schueller said.