The Stettler Lightning countered an overabundance of opening-week games to earn a split as they kicked off the Heritage Junior Hockey League season with four games in five days.
After opening their regular season with a 4-1 victory over the Ponoka Stampeders last Wednesday, the junior B Lightning edged the High River Flyers 2-1 on Friday before falling 11-4 to the Red Deer Vipers on Saturday and 5-1 to the Blackfalds Wranglers on Sunday.
Including three games in as many days, it was a rigorous start to the 2011-12 season for the Lightning.
“We learned things, though,” said Stettler coach and general manager Doug Smith. “That was the good part about it. We learned a little bit about ourselves and the opposition and everything else, so that’s never a bad thing.”
“I told the guys when we got home, ‘Four games on the road and we’re .500. If you’re .500 or .600 on the road for the whole season, that’s not a bad thing. But as long as you’re .900 at home …’”
“Last year, we were good. We had a very good road record last year and I don’t see it being any differently this year. We seem to be a team that’s able to step off the bus and get ourselves together in a hurry and get at it.”
The Lightning (2-2) return to the comforts of home this weekend as they host Ponoka (0-3) at 8 p.m. Friday and High River (2-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Stettler Recreation Centre.
It ’s home-opening weekend for a Lightning team that went 4-0 in the pre-season, including a pair of victories in Stettler.
After a busy couple of weeks, the 25-man Lightning roster is beginning to take shape.
“Now that we’ve kind of seen what everybody can do, we’ll do a little line-juggling,” Smith said. “We’ll see if we can get a little more offence out of a couple of lines by putting a little more talent together and see how that works out. Now that we can trust the other two lines to be very solid defensively, then we can start to overbalance a little bit.”
Stettler’s reliable hands on the weekend included defenceman Doug Blacklock and forwards Jake Schwarzenberger and Tyson Glazier, their coach said.
“Doug Blacklock has made a real step from last year to this year. He was very steady in the games he played in on the weekend. Jake Schwarzenberger had a terrific three game weekend. Tyson Glazier played a solid two-way game all three games, as well.
“Others did also, but those are three that stand out.”
In similar fashion, the Muhlbach twins — Derek and Dylan — made an impact that belied their 17-year-old rookie status.
“I was real pleased with the twins’ play,” Smith said. “They’re making real strides every game, starting to feel a little more comfortable with the speed and the size of these guys.”
Dylan Muhlbach missed Saturday’s game because of the flu — the same ailment that kept sophomore forward Reese Anheliger out of Friday’s contest.
Defenceman Luca Bozzetto was forced to miss Sunday’s game after he was struck with a high-stick the night before in Red Deer. He suffered a minor back injury but is expected to play this weekend.
Lightning goal-tender Simon Thieleman of Castor went the distance in three of the four games and started Saturday’s lopsided loss in Red Deer before giving way to newcomer Steven Altman.
“We’re quite happy with our goaltending — to know that we have a solid No. 1 and a good (backup) right behind him, if need be,” said Smith, who plans to start Thieleman again Friday.
Brett Ouellette scored a shorthanded goal and assisted on a Shayne Liukkonen tally. Jake Schwarzenberger and Derek Muhlbach also scored for Stettler, which fired 59 shots at Stampeders goaltender Logan Stebner. Simon Thieleman made 23 stops for the Lightning.
HIGH RIVER 1
Liukkonen and Mitch Finkbiner netted third period goals as the Lightning posted a comeback victory. Thieleman registered 27 stops, including 14 in the opening period.
RED DEER 11
The Lightning received power-play goals from Ouellette, Kyler O’Connor and Tyson Glazier and an even-strength marker from Reese Anheliger, but they allowed the Vipers to score twice while shorthanded and two more times on power plays. Red Deer led 5-1 after the first period and 10-2 after the second.
Derek Muhlbach’s power-play goal in the first period pulled Stettler into a 1-1 tie, but it was all Blackfalds after that. The Wranglers went up 3-1 before the period ended and added one goal in each of the final two periods. Thieleman faced 54 shots in the Stettler net, while his teammates fired 35 shots at Layne Swier.