As the Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake Moose hit the midpoint of the 2013-14 season, they are, for the first time in a long time, right where they want to be.
Following a 4-1 victory over Mound-Westonka Thursday night, the Moose are now 7-5, including a 4-1 record in the Mississippi 8.
With goals for the season that included finishing over .500 and competing for a conference championship, the Moose are within range of reaching what they set out to do.
“I think we’re on track [to finish above .500],” said Coach Sheldon Weston, referencing both the team’s record and upcoming schedule. “If we keep getting better, we’ll be above that mark.”
Thursday night, in their second-to-last nonconference game before entering the meat of the Mississippi 8 schedule, the Moose got better.
Despite a 2-1 record the previous weekend in St. Cloud, Weston felt like the team’s play had trailed off toward the end of the tournament, a feeling that was backed by a 5-3 loss in their final game, a game they once led 3-1.
“We had started to get a little selfish, we were pointing fingers,” said Weston. “So we refocused our attention on what’s important.”
The Moose entered their game with Mound-Westonka talking about playing as a team and playing with positive energy.
It showed early.
The top line for the Moose, Colton Jones, Drew Brockman and Oliver Winsor came out buzzing. They used relentless pressure on the forecheck to generate a handful of early opportunities.
“We had the puck in their zone it seemed like for the first five minutes of the game,” said Weston.
Three minutes in, they capitalized. After forcing a turnover in their offensive end, Jones and Winsor teamed up to find Brockman in front of the net. He whirled and found the back of the net, putting the Moose up 1-0. Shots, just three minutes in, were 6-0, Moose.
Despite the dominance early, the Moose were only able to put the one puck in the net. And that goal seemed to wake up the visitors. Play evened out slightly, and while the Moose continued to control offensive zone time, Mound-Westonka started generating a couple breakouts. Midway through the period, one paid off.
Mound-Westonka broke out of the Moose zone on a 2-on-1 break. A pretty pass set up a 1-0 in front of the net and a pretty move led to a goal, tying the game at 1.
As the period wore on, the Moose found themselves in the penalty box twice, helping to fully halt their momentum. Their penalty kill held up though, keeping the game tied at one through the rest of the period. For the most part, the special teams unit kept Mound-Westonka from generating many good looks during the man advantage, and when they did, Darien Jones was there to make a couple of big saves.
After one, the game was tied at 1, with the Moose holding an 11-8 edge in shots on goal.
The Moose, who drew a penalty with seconds left in the first, opened the second period with nearly a full power play. They didn’t score, but they did grab some momentum back.
With the Moose controlling the puck much like they had early in the first, it took just five minutes for the home team to grab the lead back.
The Moose generated another offensive zone turnover and the puck found the stick of Mason Vetsch, who was planted on the doorstep. He knew what to do. Vetsch flipped it past the goaltender, giving the Moose a 2-1 lead.
After 12 minutes of evenly played hockey, including another strong penalty kill by the Moose, the score remained the same at the second intermission.
In the third period, the Moose closed the door.
The home team started the third with energy and focus that they didn’t lose. The Moose limited the visitors to just three shots on goal the entire period and didn’t allow a legitimate scoring chance until there were less than four minutes left in the game. When Mound-Westonka finally got a good look on the goal, Jones made a big time glove save, preserving the lead.
The last real scare of the game came with one minute left. The Moose had a man sent off for a penalty, and with Mound-Westonka pulling their goalie the visitors would have a two-man advantage on offense.
The penalty kill, which had been so strong all game, needed to be strong once more. And they were.
Thirty seconds into the penalty, and with 30 seconds left in the game, Colton Jones took the puck away from the visitors, skated past the red line, and then past the blue line, and dumped it into the open net for a game-clinching goal. Ten seconds later Drew Brockman forced a turnover and added an empty-netter of his own, providing the final 4-1 margin.
“Penalty kill isn’t the way you want to play the game,” admitted Jones after the game. “But it’s very important. It was good to get a couple goals at the end.”
Most importantly, the Moose were having fun again.
“This one,” said Weston. “This one was fun.”
“We’re having fun,” agreed Jones. “Winning is fun.”
They know they still have work to do. For example, the Moose know they need to spend less time in the box and on the penalty kill, but right now they’re winning while learning. And that’s set them up for just the kind of success they imagined having this year.
“We’ve definitely been expecting more this year,” said Jones, in comparison to past years. “It’s a year to make something happen.”
Those things, the over .500 record and conference championship, are well within reach. And the Moose’s recent hot streak that has seen them win 4 out of 5 games has them believing they’re more than capable of finishing what they’ve started.
“I think we can play with any team out there,” added Jones. “If everyone comes out to play each night we should be able to win [the conference].”
The Moose were supposed to play Prairie Center Tuesday night. But with school canceled due to the extreme cold, the game has been rescheduled to a later date.
The Moose return to the ice tonight, as they travel to St. Francis for a 7 o’clock conference showdown.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com