PREVIEW: Firebirds boys hockey looking to capitalize on strengths in goaltending, defense
Last season was the Firebirds' version of dipping their toe in the water. Working with a new young core and lower numbers, Devils Lake's 2019-20 campaign didn't end the way they had wanted at 4-18.
However, a handful of silver linings throughout the season have set the Firebirds up in a comfortable place as they return to the ice this winter.
"Last season we were young, had a lower number of kids out, and weren't where we wanted to be sitting," Firebirds head coach Jens Stokke said. "There is room for improvement there. Hopefully, we can move in the right direction this season. We were close last season in a few of our games, but just couldn't pull it out."
One place where Devils Lake peaked on the ice was between the pipes in the performance of goaltenders senior Braden Schmitz and junior Zach White. Night in and night out, the pair was around 40 shots and playing a major role in keeping the Firebirds in the game. In a 6-0 loss to Red River, White would make 79 saves. Earlier in the season, Schmitz had made 56 saves in an 8-0 loss to Fargo Shanley.
With White getting in some reps with Team North Dakota and all of the goaltenders fighting for the starting spot, Stokke said that the team's goaltending situation is in a good place.
"Those goalies have all been working hard to compete against each other and push each other," Stokke said. "Zach White is one of Team ND's main goalie right now, so that is always good to see. Then you got Braden Schmitz, who's doing a lot of good things off the ice and going to a lot of goalie camps. We've really got some motivated guys back there between the pipes. Hopefully, it's a reflection onto everyone else."
In front of the Firebirds goaltending unit is a steady defense according to Stokke. Devils Lake will be returning its top defender and one of its top point-getters in junior Jeremiah Hill, whose five goals and four assists were good enough for the third-best point margin on the team. Junior Camden Schwab had a strong outing for Devils Lake as one of the team's full-time defenders, racking up six assists on the year. Stokke is looking to Hill and Schwab to push the younger core.
While the defense and goaltending are looking to be in a solid place come puck drop, the young offensive core is looking to fill the holes lost from Devils Lake's two top scorers. The Firebirds two top scorers in Aaron Johnson and Austin Devier, who finished with 10 points each, graduated leaving a big gap in the offense.
"Hopefully some of the younger kids start stepping up and filling in some roles and contribute in that point category," Stokke said. "We lost our top point guys, so some of these younger guys really need to start helping out in the offensive zone and start capitalizing."
To get the offense going, the Firebirds are looking to working off of their strengths on defense, sparking a lot of their offense off of shots from their defensemen.
Heading into a high-powered eastern region the Firebirds know what they're in for. Stokke knows his team is going to have to play tight in the defensive zone when facing Grand Forks Central or Grand Forks Red River. The Fargo schools in Davies and South also bring a challenge to the ice for Devils Lake.
"The east is such a dominate force compared to the west," Stokke said. "We are definitely in the top tier of North Dakota hockey and the boys are just going to have to work on defensive zone coverage and capitalize on offensive zone opportunities."
With a little less than a month until the start of the season, Devils Lake is mostly focused on staying healthy and having as many guys out on the ice as they can. Stokke said the team has already had a few guys sit out practices due to cases and is having everyone on the ice wearing a mask when playing.
"I think everyone is looking for a rise from the previous year and we're hoping to meet that goal," Stokke said. "I kind of talked about the issues we're going to see throughout the year, so we'll just see how it plays out and go from there."
Due to the executive order put in place by Governor Burgum, all winter sports are postponed until Dec. 14. According to the team's schedule, their first game out of the pause is Dec. 15 at West Fargo Sheyenne.
Devils Lake boys hockey schedule
The schedule posted below are games starting Dec. 15. It is unknown if games from Nov. 14 to Dec. 14 will be rescheduled.
Dec. 15 at West Fargo Sheyenne
Dec. 18 vs. Fargo Davies
Dec. 22 vs. Fargo North
Jan. 5 vs. Fargo South-Shanley
Jan. 8 at West Fargo
Jan. 15 at Fargo North
Jan. 22 at Grafton
Jan. 26 vs. Grand Forks Central
Jan. 28 vs. West Fargo Sheyenne
Jan. 30 at Fargo South-Shanley
Feb. 2 at Fargo Davies
Feb. 5 at Grand Forks Red River
Feb. 9 vs. West Fargo
Feb. 14-20 East Region Tournament
Feb. 25-27 State Tournament