Kaleb Thingelstad whacked at the puck. Alex Longoria swung his stick. Nothing. The tiny rubber disc teased its way around the goalmouth for what seemed like forever, evading any Pirate stick that looked to send it into the net.
Crookston really could have used a goal at that moment, down 2-0 to Little Falls at the end of the first period and looking to lasso some momentum going into the break. Instead, by luck as much as the Little Falls defense, the threat was thwarted, and the Flyers all but ended things by scoring four goals in the second period.
Saturday’s 7-3 defeat actually was a season-high offensive output for the Pirates (0-3), but it wasn’t anything to celebrate. Not only did it come on the business end of a beatdown, but it was a frustrating reminder that Crookston’s biggest offensive flaw isn’t that it can’t score, but that it can’t put it all together.
The Pirates combined for 53 shots on goal in their first two games, but got just two goals out of them.
“I'm actually surprised by our offensive output,” said head coach Josh Hardy after Friday’s 3-1 loss to Sartell-St. Stephen. “Obviously, it's not showing up on the scoreboard, but we had chances.”
The opposite was true against Little Falls, in which Crookston was outshot 46-17. While the Pirates couldn’t deal with the Flyers’ forwards and weren’t physical in the defensive zone, they took advantage of transition opportunities, scoring all three of their goals with precise finishes on odd-man rushes.
If Crookston had finished and forechecked like it did on Saturday against Sartell or Mounds View, the story of its season so far might be very different. Instead, it watched as Little Falls put on a clinic: getting bodies in front of the net and driving pucks into traffic.
“When we had opportunities, we should have just buried the puck,” said senior forward Ben Andringa.
The top line, consisting of Andringa, Joey Doda (Sr., F) and Jack Doda (Fr., F) has done its part — having scored all of the Pirates’ five goals, including two on the power play.
“Joey and Jack are brothers, and they act like brothers a lot of times, so they get after each other a little, but they know where each other is on the ice,” Hardy said. “Ben and Joey have been playing together all the way up, they both came up as freshmen together. That line's got a lot of chemistry. It's fun to watch them and we need them to score.”
But Crookston needs scoring from other sources, too, such as the second line of Quinn Westlake (Sr., F), Thingelstad and Longoria — who Hardy, in particular, says is “due.”
To the Pirates, there’s one underlying theme to everything: puck luck. There are moments in every game where the puck doesn’t bounce your way, and through three games, Crookston’s had more than its share.
But bad puck luck is something good teams fight through anyway. They stick with the script, continue creating opportunities and hope something finds the net.
And when the really good opportunities come, the Pirates know they have to take advantage better than they have so far.
“It's just practice, it's habits, it's having your stick on the ice when you go to the net, it's hand-eye coordination being able to bang that puck home, it's putting yourself in those situations to do that,” Hardy said on Friday. “It's tough.”
The silver lining, to Hardy, is that dealing with an early bout of bad breaks will make Crookston a better team in January and February. The earlier the inevitable happens, the better, so that the Pirates have more time to learn from it and prepare for when it strikes again.
For now, Crookston is staring at a winless start with just five goals scored, and a schedule that won’t get any easier starting with Tuesday night’s game against Warroad.
Even coming close to beating the powerhouse Warriors will require a complete team effort from the Pirates. Controlling the offensive zone, moving the puck, playing tough in the defensive zone, turning defense into offense and finishing with accuracy. Everything Crookston’s done sporadically through three games, but all at once.
“It's physical and mental,” Andringa said. “We gotta be all there in our positions and our play, and at the end of the day we gotta be able to physically put the puck in the net.”
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