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Junior Hockey: A challenge awaits for the Willmar WarHawks

WarHawks resume season with a seven-game winning streak after taking a 16-day holiday break.

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Willmar WarHawks forward Jeremiah Konkel celebrates after scoring a goal in the first period against the Alexandria Blizzard on Friday, Oct. 22, at the Willmar Civic Center. Matthew Curry/West Central Tribune

WILLMAR – A difficult test greets the Willmar WarHawks as they begin the second half of the season looking to add to their seven-game winning streak after having a 16-day game break.

Willmar battles the Mason City Toros (22-8-1) on Friday at the Willmar Civic Center and 3 p.m. Saturday in Mason City, Iowa.

After losing to the Alexandria Blizzard 4-3 on Dec. 1, the WarHawks held a 10-10-1 record. From there, the WarHawks blazed its way to a seven-game win streak with five of the seven wins being shutouts. The win streak puts Willmar at 17-10-1 and third in the West Division in the NA3HL with 35 points.

Willmar is 10 points behind second place Mason City (45) and 17 behind first place Granite City (52)

“We’re looking at it as we’re on a hot streak down here in the middle and moving in the right direction,” WarHawks’ coach Kirk Olimb said.

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However, the streak will be challenged against the Toros, which the WarHawks hold a 2-4 record against this season.

Willmar comes into the matchup having defeated Mason City 3-2 the last time the two teams met on Dec. 17.

“It’s exciting because we get to put the seven-game win streak to the test here,” Olimb said. “See if we can continue it.

“We did beat them right before the showcase, and we feel like we’ve gotten even stronger since then and we have a lot of momentum going,” he added. “It will be a good test to see where we’re at.”

Prior to the break, at the NA3HL NSC Super Rink Showcase in Blaine, Willmar defeated Great Falls Americans 6-0 on Dec. 20, New Jersey Titans 9-0 on Dec. 21 and Peoria Mustangs 2-0 on Dec. 22.

The West Division finished 17-1 at the showcase.

“It just shows how tough the West Division is,” Olimb said. “We have to play some teams from other divisions and it worked really well for us. We had great goaltending. When you have three consecutive shutouts you’ve got great goaltending.”

Along with strong goaltending from Cooper Olson and Will Pinney, Will Konka, the 6-foot-1 goalie from Moorhead, is on a three-game shutout streak. He has saved 75 of 75 shots.

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On offense, the WarHawks first line of Ben Luedtke, Jeremiah Konkel and Anthony Foster, known as the Red Line, has helped lead Willmar in points.

Konkel leads the team with 18 goals and 19 assists; followed by Luedtke’s 15 goals and 19 assists. Foster has 27 points with nine goals and 18 assists.

In the three days of the showcase, Luedtke totaled nine points, Konkel six and Foster five.

“Those three guys just work so hard. That’s the key to their success,” Olimb said. “They’re so tenacious. They’re on the forecheck, pounding pucks. If somebody loses one they’re out getting it back and they’re tough to knock off the puck.

“They all have great vision, they work together as a line and it’s really unselfish hockey,” he added. “They make a lot of nice plays and they can have the highlight goals but they can also take the puck to the net and grind one out. They can all score in a lot of ways but it all comes down to hard work and just tenacity.”

Since the start of the season, the WarHawks have added Mikhail Kukareka, a 5-foot-10 defender from Moscow, Russia; Samuel Miller, a 6-foot-1 defender from Denver, Colorado; and Patrick Wyers, a 5-foot-9 forward from Minnetonka.

Wyers played 14 games for the Oklahoma City Ice Hawks this season where he totaled 27 points with 17 assists and 10 goals. Wyers’ first game as a WarHawk came Dec. 17 when Willmar defeated Mason City and he recorded an assist.

Since then Wyers has totaled three assists and one goal in four games for the WarHawks, bringing his point total to 31 this season.

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With the key additions, and the WarHawks previous success, the WarHawks and Toros weekend matchup could be a strong sign to where the WarHawks’ second half of the season is heading.

“We’re 10 points behind (Mason City) which is a pretty good hill to climb,” Olimb said. “But if we’re able to get a couple wins this weekend, that can cut that deficit to six points. So that’s going to be the goal so we just have to go in and play our game there.”

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Willmar goaltender Will Pinney makes a glove save during the first period of a NA3HL game against Alexandria Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 at the Willmar Civic Center. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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