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UWRF men’s hockey team turns season around after slow start

February 8, 2017

The Falcon men’s hockey team is finally hitting its stride at the proper time this season, winning 10 of its last 12 games as the WIAC tournament approaches.

This turnaround is even more impressive due to the Falcons’ slow start to the season. UW-River Falls came out struggling to find its offense in the first half of the year and got out to a 2-8-1 start. This came after a preseason top 10 ranking and high expectations for the mix of young and experienced players.

But now the momentum has completely shifted, as the Falcons are on a four-game win streak with a key victory over defending national champion UW-Stevens Point at Hunt Arena.

Head Coach Steve Freeman is especially impressed by the team’s ability to turn its season around. He said he credits the leadership of his nine seniors by showing their true talents and character to keep fighting for another conference championship.

“We thought all season we could compete with the top teams, but obviously, it didn’t go that way to start. The guys really believe in what we’re doing on a daily basis,” Freeman said.

Senior forward Mike Fazio said he also feels like the team has a completely different look from the early part of the season. He says their will to compete and motivation has risen since their rough start.

“It really pushed us to another level, and I think we’re hitting our full stride now. We’ve grown so much as a team, and I don’t think we would be the team we are now without that losing streak,” Fazio said.

The transition from struggling to score to now competing with the top WIAC teams wasn’t solved overnight. The wins have started piling up by improving in almost every aspect of the game.

“It wasn’t that we were playing poorly; we were just struggling to make goals. We played pretty well defensively all year, but this group has shown to be very resilient and stuck with the plan. It finally broke where we’re getting enough goals to win and it’s been a terrific second half for us,” Freeman said.

The Falcons took three consecutive wins into their winter break before returning on Jan. 5 against St. Johns. UWRF has responded by winning seven of its last nine games since returning and going 3-1 in WIAC play.

“Over break you feel good because your last few games were wins, but it’s also hard to stay focused that long away from the rink. It’s a pretty good job by our team coming back and staying focused and getting the job done,” Fazio said.

A few strong performances were followed up by a tough 2-4 loss to UW-Eau Claire that saw the Falcons fall to the Blugolds for the second time this season. UWRF responded marvelously two days later, knocking off No. 4 ranked UW-Stevens Point 4-2 behind goals from four different Falcons.

“It was huge for us to beat a top team in the country, which gave us some confidence and we’ve been rolling with that. Everybody played well, and around the locker room we felt like we could beat them,” Fazio said.

That boost in confidence is beginning to take the team a long way. Freeman said he hopes the upset can continue to carry them into the last weeks of the regular season and the WIAC playoffs.

“[The win] verified where we are at as a team. We’re a pretty dangerous team to play right now, and we could be a tough draw in the playoffs,” Freeman said.

With the WIAC playoffs only a week or two away, UWRF will continue to rely on its strong goaltending from freshman Zach Quinn. Quinn has a save percentage of 93 percent and is only allowing 1.65 goals per game. This has helped him earn WIAC Player of the Week honors twice in his 18 games in net.

“Zach has done a tremendous job in the net for us. Now we just need to squeeze out another goal per game to take a little pressure off him,” Freeman said.

The Falcons put this advice into action last Saturday when they traveled to UW-Superior a day after taking down UW-Stout 2-1 at home on Friday.

The team was on the attack early, when Mike Dietrich assisted on a Fazio goal to put them up 1-0 midway through the first period. It wouldn’t be until the third period when they would put the game away with a goal from freshman Aussie Miller. The game was closer than the score showed, with the Falcons only outshooting the Yellowjackets 30-29.

“It was a real tough, grind-it-out game where we were playing our second game of the weekend on the road while they were fresh. We played a real structured, good defensive game, and the guys are really starting to excel in the puck protection game,” Freeman said.

Even with all the recent success, the Falcons know improvements still need to be made to continue their streak and make a run in the playoffs.

“We need to be more gritty by getting pucks in front of the net and crashing. In the playoffs anybody in the WIAC can beat us no matter who we play, so we need to put our nose to the grindstone and get going,” Fazio said.

The Falcons will close out their regular season at UW-Stout on Saturday before finding out their fate for the WIAC playoffs.