Devils Lake continues to put building blocks together following loss to West Fargo
It's common for Devils Lake squads to go into a rebuilding phase after a strong season. As a smaller school at the Class A or no class system, talent is built up through groups as they grow throughout the program. Once that successful senior class leaves, the next group comes in, ready to grow into that role.
Last season, Devils Lake girls hockey had its most successful finish in program history, finishing fourth in the state. This season, due to senior losses, the team has welcomed in a handful of girls who are not just young, but some are playing hockey for the first time. It's back to square one for the Firebirds, meaning there's a lesson to be learned in every finish.
A 1-13 record nearing the end of the season may seem deceiving at first, but taking a closer look, the young Devils Lake squad was in a handful of those games, falling one goal short. Six of the Firebirds' losses were decided by one goal, and two other games saw Devils Lake holding close until the third period: Jamestown and West Fargo.
On Monday against the West Fargo (6-8-2, 5-6-2), Devils Lake (1-13, 1-12) was in a similar situation where they remained close throughout and the game would end up getting away from them as the United would score two goals in the third period for a 5-1 win. The majority of the game saw the Firebirds either tied or within striking distance of evening up the score.
"I thought the first period we played really well, a lot better than last game against Fargo North/South," Firebirds head coach Rob McIvor said. "The play was a lot faster, passing was better and we out-shot our whole game against Fargo North/South in one period. The second and third periods were a little bit sloppier and slower play. Our second line played well tonight, but we need to get them scoring and have the first line score in bunches."
Devils Lake has seen the majority of its conversions this season come on the power play, a unit that has shown vast improvement throughout the year, however, the Firebirds goal scored on Monday an example of what McIvor wants to see more of from his offense: rebound capitalization. Senior Hannah Houle and freshman Ashlyn Abrahamson would get a handful of whacks at the puck before Houle would bury the puck on the third or fourth rebound.
"Hannah did a great job on that goal and held her ground," McIvor said. "I think she might've had two or three whacks at it before it went in, so those are the kind of goals that we need to score in order to get going."
In combining the other goals of jumping their overall shot count, moving play in front of the net is what the Firebirds believe will help flip 2-1 losses into ties or wins in their final games of the regular season. Devils Lake has been filtering a lot of their offense around the slot, but not in it. After Monday's conversion, putting players in that area, while it might be harder to stand your ground, will help them find the back of the net.
"In front of the net is where you'll get the most contact," McIvor said. "Most referees let you away with a little more cross-checking in front of the net. It's a hard place to be, but you have to be there to score goals. We're sticking to the outside too much and we have to get to the dirty areas in front and shoot hard."
One player that has really emphasized the aggressive mentality in relation to offense is Abrahamson. She sat in the box three times on the night, which McIvor questioned the calls, but Abrahamson's aggressive approach allowed the Firebirds to get a handful of looks at the United's end of the ice.
In the first period and the early second period, the Firebirds saw a handful of scoring opportunities, with one looking like it was going to go in before the play was blown dead. Houle would jump on a rebound that wasn't secured by the goaltender, but the play was whistled dead as the referee said the puck had been secured by the goalie. A few seconds later, Alyssa Smith would go end to end to give the United a two goal lead.
Nevertheless, the Firebirds are coming away from Monday's COVID rescheduled game looking to use an aggressive approach to move into a game that is more skill-focused. In having a taller second line, McIvor believes playing with a little more aggression will help the team keep pace with other teams who may have a talent advantage.
"We have to play aggressively, especially with our second line when all three girls are pretty tall and muscular," McIvor said. "I'm not going to take that away from them, but at the same time I want them to work on their skills and become better hockey players, so they don't have to do as much of that."
While the Firebirds are still young and learning the game, their showing this season surprised McIvor in ways. He knew that this season was going to be different from last, but Devils Lake, with a handful of close results and without knowing, could've possibly gone back to the State tournament if they had scored one or two more goals.
"You look at six 2-1 losses and one 4-3 loss. Those are a lot of games that could've gone the other way and would've propelled us into state again. That's the surprising part," McIvor said. "In some respects, I didn't think that we'd get that far, but there we were and I'm pretty happy where we've been in games situation-wise. We just need to figure out how to score goals."
In their three games left before the end of the regular season, the Firebirds have an opportunity to work on finding the back of the net and strengthening their defensive presence. Friday they face 12-2 Bismarck, which they know they have to have a more defensive focus, but in their final two games against Jamestown and Grand Forks, they believe that they can pick up a pair of wins.
"Against Bismarck, we're going to have to play better defensively as a group," McIvor said. "Against Grand Forks and Jamestown, we can play a bit of a regular game where we can get people going and try to start the scoring."