Blackbirds surging in Great Lakes race

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Federals sweep, Rampage win a pair –

 
 
Chad Miller has helped lead the way for the Blackbirds with 23 goals and 29 assists. Photo courtesy of Russ Eastburn/ESP1000.com

When the division is as crowded with solid competition as the Great Lakes is, putting together a big winning streak can go a long way towards a team’s fortunes at the end of the season and is an impressive feat in itself. Right now, the Illiana Blackbirds are the hottest team in the GL Division, having won all seven of their 2013 games including a road victory against first-place Wisconsin.

“The team has always been a confident bunch,” said Blackbirds GM and Head Coach Reid Simpson. “We took a lot of time this season to concentrate on the learning side of the game as individual players and try to hold each accountable for how they play, preaching the little things that matter when it comes to winning.”

The Blackbirds have surged closer to the top of the division with good goaltending, timely goal scoring and the best power play unit in the GL Division. Though the team had its ups and downs in the beginning of the season, the Blackbirds are an example of how hard work and dedication pays off.

“There are always growing pains,” Simpson explained. “It’s hard to change habits of players that have done things certain ways their whole lives and now they’re asked to do it a different way. “For the most par everyone has bought in and the success has come with it.

Jakob Smith (59 PTS, 34 GP), Chad Miller (52 PTS, 38 GP) and Nathan Aloisio (37 PTS, 34 GP) have paced the Blackbirds all season in the scoring department, but improvements from the rest of the skaters have helped the Blackbirds take off.

“Adding [Sean] Gruenhagen, [Nicholas] Townes and [Christian] Reattoir really solidified our lineup,” said Simpson. “Some of our bigger successes have come from the growth of our third and fourth line players.”

Newcomers Gruenhagen, Townes and Reattior have paid immediate dividends for Illiana. Gruenhagen, a native of Crown Point, Ind. has nine points in nine games since joining the Blackbirds at the Minnesota Showcase in Rochester. Townes, another Crown Point product has scored seven goals and 12 points in just six games, including seven points in the three-game sweep of the Wooster Oilers. Christian Reattoir from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. had a five-point weekend in Wooster.

“We have no trouble playing anyone, anywhere at any time and that allows us a lot of flexibility,” Simpson stated. “Players like [Joe] Orosz, [Curtis] Artuso, [Austin] Ahlers and [Kyle] Fahy and the list goes on, have become very important parts of the puzzle.”

After all of the depth the skaters, Calvin Burkhart provides a stable last line of defense. His 14 wins are now tops in the division and has been a large part of the team’s success.

“Calvin has always been a number one goalie in our league,” Simpson said of his goaltender. “We have not only tried to develop Calvin, but he has helped in the development of our other goalies [Brandon Vulpitta and Dylan Martin] and we are getting strong performances from them.”

When it comes to figuring out how to keep rolling, Simpson put it simply.

“We just plan on doing the same as we have been doing up until now and building on the success we have had.”

A team looking to build on a seven-game winning streak will be a handful for the rest of the division as the post season inches closer.

Elsewhere in the Great Lakes Division of the MnJHL:

Central Wisconsin Saints: After edging the Rampage with a 2-1 home victory, the Saints would fall in the next two games of the series. Brett Lucas scored a goal in each of the three games, including Friday’s game-winner.

Chicago Bulldogs: It was a weekend off for the Bulldogs as they finish off the home-heavy part of their schedule when Tri City comes to town.

Fort Wayne Federals: Derek Moss was on fire against the Frontenacs, picking up eight points in Fort Wayne’s three-game sweep of St. Louis.

St. Louis Frontenacs: Jordan Stradtman had a pair of goals on Sunday, Cory Brown, Gavin Schimpff and Alex Rojas also chipped in goals in another tough series for St. Louis.

Tri City Icehawks: The Icehawks also rested up last weekend and set their sights on an important road series against Chicago.

Wisconsin Rampage: Two-goal performances from Tom Stanislavski on Saturday and Nick Riscossa on Sunday helped the Rampage take the series in Stevens Point.

Wooster Oilers: Kevin Vinyard scored three goals and Zach Turner added two to lead the way for Wooster, who was swept by the Blackbirds.

Games this week:

Friday January 25,

Illiana Blackbirds at Central Wisconsin Saints, 7:00 p.m.

Fort Wayne Federals at Wooster Oilers, 7:45 p.m.

Tri City Icehawks at Chicago Bulldogs, 8:00 p.m.

Wisconsin Rampage at St. Louis Frontenacs, 9:15 p.m.

Saturday January 26,

Illiana Blackbirds at Central Wisconsin Saints, 3:00 p.m.

Tri City Icehawks at Chicago Bulldogs, 5:30 p.m.

Fort Wayne Federals at Wooster Oilers, 6:15 p.m.

Wisconsin Rampage at St. Louis Frontenacs, 9:15 p.m.

Sunday January 27,

Illiana Blackbirds at Central Wisconsin Saints, 10:30 a.m.

Wisconsin Rampage at St. Louis Frontenacs, 11:30 a.m.

Tri City Icehawks at Chicago Bulldogs, 12:00 p.m.

Fort Wayne Federals at Wooster Oilers, 1:00 p.m.

By Chris Dubiel/Great Lakes Division Director of Media Relations