Young Firebirds continue to develop on-ice presence following loss to No. 9 Jamestown
Ice hockey is not an easy sport to just pick up. Many studies looking at the toughest sports to play rank ice hockey in the top five, above popular sports such as baseball and football. The challenge becomes even harder when some of your opponents have been playing for almost a decade.
There are some veterans of the game on Devils Lake girls ice hockey's roster. Seniors goaltender Molly Black, forward Hannah Houle, and forward Madisyn White have hung around Burdick Arena for a long time. However, the bulk of the Firebirds roster is still learning not just how to play at the high school varsity level, but hockey in general.
The building process of learning the game and playing as a team is slowly moving along as Thursday night's loss to No. 9 Jamestown, 3-0, stood out as a winnable game to the young Firebirds according to head coach Rob McIvor.
"We didn't play as well as we played against Davies," McIvor said. "We have a lot of young players who are still learning how to play hockey so it a process and we'll get better as the year goes on. I knew Jamestown would be a decent hockey team and they showed that here. They have three lines that are all evenly matched, but I don't think we pressed them enough in the offensive zone. We didn't control the puck very well at all."
While the offense struggled to ignite, Black was key in keeping the Firebirds within striking distance throughout the game. The senior recorded her second straight 50 plus save game, making 54 saves on 57 shots. Against Davies on Tuesday, Black recorded 64 saves in a 6-1 loss. In holding the captains C on her chest, Black's role has moved outside of the cage, communicating what she needs from the defensive unit in front of her.
"She's been communicating with the defense this year on which way to go with the puck and clear the front when she can't see," McIvor said. "She's doing as much as she can. We need, as a group, to do a better job in front of her."
With the Bluejays spending the majority of the game in the Firebirds' end of the ice and the defense in front of Black struggling to start the breakout, she could only hold back the floodgates for so long. Less than five minutes left in the first period, Jamestown's Bernadette Belzer would wrist a shot from the top of the circle that would find its way past Black through a screen for a 1-0 lead to close out the first period.
Devils Lake would go on the attack early in the second period, but the ice would begin to slant again in favor of the Bluejays as the Firebirds spent the majority of the period on defense. Similar to the first period, the offensive pressure became too much as a shot from Ellie Krueger at the point would tip off of Black's stick and in to put Jamestown up 2-0 going into the final frame. McIvor said inexperience did play a role in the team's lack of offensive press along with lower defenseman numbers.
"At time's there was hesitation to press," McIvor said. "Plus, one of our defensemen is currently gone, so we're currently running three D and we might have to revisit that on Saturday for Fargo North/South, which is another good team we're going to play."
In continuing to grow, the Firebirds did come out with a more aggressive attack in the third period, but not cleanly. After just going onto the power play, seventh grader defenseman Julia McIvor would take a hooking penalty, putting Devils Lake 4-on-4 for a short period of time. The Firebirds would kill off the first penalty but didn't have the same fate after the second committed penalty as freshman forward Ashlyn Abrahamson would be sent to the box for slashing and the Bluejays would capitalize. Alexis Kirkeby would move past a Firebird defenseman and wrist it gloveside past Black.
"You can't have stick penalties," McIvor said. "When you're getting stick penalties, and you're behind by two goals, that can't happen. You need to be using your body and be aggressive in that way."
In this process of growing younger players within the program, it starts at the base of the play. Devils Lake is looking to work on its puck handling and breakouts in order to find the back of the net at the other end of the ice. Throughout the night, Devils Lake struggled to move the puck out of its zone and connect with its wingers along the roads. McIvor said the breakout is a process that the team needs to get creative with.
"Simply put, if the wingers aren't in the right positioning, something else has to happen from the defense," McIvor said. "Maybe we move it up through the middle or up the sides, but obviously, we didn't do a good job breaking out the puck. It's something we need to revisit and look at on video too."
Veteran players did carry the offensive effort as Abrahamson and White had a handful of chances for the Firebirds on the night. The Firebirds were outshot 57-14 but managed to test Bluejays goaltender Jada Nelson from time to time. One thing that Devils Lake is looking to correct on its offensive attack is being aware of what's ahead of them when carrying the puck, better known as keeping your head up.
Like the Firebirds, the season is still young and everyone on the roster is just excited to be on the ice again. Devils Lake knew that it was going to be a different season from last after losing six seniors, but in a similar light, they've also welcomed a large number of players onto the roster, including freshman Calin Boline, who McIvor has been asking to join the team for four years.
"You just need to work through positioning on the ice and what they need to do to make the overall team defense better," McIvor said.
The Firebirds have Friday off before hosting No. 3 Fargo North/South Saturday afternoon at Burdick Arena. The Spruins opened up their season on Tuesday in a 3-1 loss to No. 6 West Fargo. However, Fargo North/South is one of the few teams that we're able to squeeze in a scrimmage before the two-week postponement, which happened on Dec. 14 against Devils Lake. A 22-2 Firebirds loss in that scrimmage may look like it slants the ice in favor of the Spruins, but McIvor said he is expecting a very different game come Saturday.
"I played everyone equally, so I'm going to match our lines with theirs's and we'll go from there," McIvor said. "They've got a lot of depth and we've got a lot of new players, but I still expect them to work hard. Positioning is going to be a factor, but I want them to play with grit and making contact."