Blue Jays face tradition-rich Red RiverThere’s no doubt about it. When the puck drops today at noon inside Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, the Jamestown Blue Jays will be the underdog.
By: By Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun, The Jamestown Sun
There’s no doubt about it.
When the puck drops today at noon inside Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, the Jamestown Blue Jays will be the underdog.
The Jays will be facing the team many still consider to be the best high school hockey team in the state in the likes of Grand Forks Red River, who is sporting an overall record of 18-5-1 and is the top dog out of the always stout East Region.
Here’s a brief state-tournament history on the Roughriders:
— They’ve appeared in every state boys hockey tournament except one (2010).
— They’ve won 15 state championships, most recently in 2011, the same year they defeated Jamestown 7-1 in the first round during the Blue Jays’ first trip to state in 12 years.
— They finished third at state last year, pounding Fargo Davies 11-1.
Tough as nails would describe the tradition-rich Roughriders, but no team is invincible. Jamestown (13-11) does have a battle plan in place, and they’ll need near flawless execution if they hope to stun the North Dakota high school hockey world.
“It’s no secret they are a good team. We obviously have to take care of the puck on our own end, but at the same time we need to take advantage of how offensive-minded they are,” JHS coach Matt Stockert said. “We cannot just sit back and let them come at us. We have to take the opportunities that are given to us and attack them right back, and hopefully catch them off guard and get a couple of early goals and turn it into a hockey game.”
Grand Forks likes to hang around the net offensively, and it shows in the stat book. An even dozen players have scored 10 or more points, including four defensemen.
Those defenseman are seniors Jon Lizotte (12 goals, 27 assists), Grant Campbell (4, 17) and Brady Bernhardson (5, 13), and junior Grant Caufield (1, 9). Lizotte’s 39 points is second on a team that boasts seven players with 20 points or more.
In short, Stockert hopes the Blue Jays can take advantage of Red River’s attention to goal scoring by creating a few odd-man rushes the other direction.
Junior forward Jacob Benson is Grand Forks’ top threat. His 56 points (30, 20) currently ranks fifth in the state.
“They really come at you offensively. They try to get everyone in the mix, and they’ve got one of the best players in the East Region in that Benson kid,” Stockert said. “Our centers and defenseman have to be on their game. When they get the puck on their stick they need to take advantage of their defensemen, that I feel like are very offensive-minded, and make sure we make the right decisions.”
The Blue Jays do have a few things going for them. For starters, the team has won five out its last six games, narrowly falling to Bismarck Century 4-3 in double overtime during the semifinals of the West Region tournament last Friday in Minot.
“We’re finding ways to win hockey games right now, and that’s all it comes down to,” JHS senior forward Jake Stilwell said. “We have to find a way to shut them down and capitalize on our opportunities.”
Jamestown’s senior goalies Tygh Yatskis and Ben Walz have also picked up their games as of late, and solid goaltending is critical in today’s master plan. Yatskis collected 59 saves in the heartbreaker to Century, while Walz followed that up with 19 saves in Jamestown’s 4-3 OT win over Mandan to punch the Jays’ ticket to state.
Walz has played in 14 games, recording 327 saves and a 90.1 save percentage. Yatskis has tallied 311 saves in 12 games at a clip of 89.1 percent.
Yatskis has 1,651 career saves (89.7 percent), while Walz has 582 stops (89.1 percent).
Jamestown will most likely face Grand Forks’ Aaron Sauve today. The junior has played in 21 of the Roughriders 25 contests, notching 369 saves (89.6 percent).
“Hopefully we play some good defense. I know we’ll have some good goaltending there,” JHS senior defenseman Dakotah Spitzer said. “We’ve got to show them that, yeah, we’re from a small town, but we can play with them.”
Red River also won’t be able to overlook Stilwell, who is another one of the state’s best at lighting the lamp. He’s currently fourth in the state with 58 points, having amassed 32 goals and 26 assists.
In his career, Stilwell has rung up 79 goals and 43 assists for 122 total points.
“We’ve just got to go play the way we know we can play,” Stilwell said. “We are capable of doing some good things, especially the way we are playing right now.”
After going two-and-out at state in 2011, the overall goal for the Blue Jays this time around is fairly simple. They want to leave it all on the ice.
Jamestown’s last state tournament berth ended with a 1-0 loss to Minot in loser-out play.
“It’s one thing to show up and not perform to our standards, but it’s another thing to hang it all out there and get beat by someone that is just plain and simply better than you,” Stockert said. “You don’t want to just hang out there to survive. You want to go out there and compete to win games.
“We want to do the best we possibly can and leave it all on the table.”
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at email@example.com