Gielczyk: Depth Carrying Big Rapids in 2016-17

Despite back-to-back losses in their own invitational tournament at Ewigleben Ice Arena in Big Rapids that put the first blemishes on an up to then perfect season, the Big Rapids Cardinals remain confident and upbeat heading into the Christmas break.

No reason to panic with so much season left before the postseason and what the Cardinals hope is a deep playoff run.

But there’s no question coach Tim Blashill came away from the weekend a bit frustrated over the Cardinals’ lack of offensive punch, and a steady flow of Cardinal players heading for the penalty box made things worse.

A five-minute penalty for slashing opened the door to two power play goals by the Rams which gave them a 4-1 lead to take into the third period.

The losses were the Cardinals’ first of the season after they got off to a 7-0 start for only the second time in Blashill’s 13 years as their coach.

Big Rapids, an independent that does not play in a conference, expected big things this year with senior forwards Drew Wotta and Garret Daum shouldering the bulk of the scoring burden. The Cardinals scored an average of over three goals a game last year.

Junior goaltender Fletcher Bolda has been playing pretty much every game between the pipes for the Cardinals since he was a freshman, and has been voted by his teammates as their Most Valuable Player both of the last two years.

"He’s only gotten better and works hard at it," says Blashill of Bolda. "He’s a naturally talented kid, but also works very hard. So, kind of the best combination you can ask for. I think the big difference from year to year is he’s continually gotten better and he started off as a pretty good goalie.

"One thing is he’s competitive, and I think for a goalie he has a short memory. Those are two attributes you want in your goalies. You want them to shake off any goal against and go on the next one.

"Fletch is really good at that. He doesn’t let that affect him. He doesn’t want to let in any goals, so he competes with himself quite a bit. As a goalie sometimes you’re alone back there at practice and things. If you don’t push yourself, sometimes it’s hard to continue to get better."

The Cardinals finished three games under .500  last year and saw their season end with a disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to Mt. Pleasant in the first round of the Division 3 playoffs.

Wotta led the team in scoring last season, and Daum gives the Cardinals a solid one-two punch up top. The pair are the team’s two top scorers this season.

"I think Drew is more of a player that sees the entire ice," Blashill said. "He’s got really good vision and offensively great instincts. Daum is a strong skater. They really complement each other, too. On the same end they are really good at back checking and playing in our ‘D’ zone as well, so they are kind of the complete package. They’ve been able to kind of take the team on their back and guys respond and respect them."

The pair play on a line with a freshman, Blake Neibarger. The second line is centered by junior James Hudersmarck who is the Cardinals’ third leading scorer along with freshman wing Tommy Crandell who has six goals for the season and River Spedowski.

But the most impressive thing about the Cardinals this season, says Blashill, is their balance.

"It’s the first year in a while where we’ve had young kids come in that are, No. 1, pretty big kids that can play right away," Blashill said. "We have a pretty good amount of depth. I think we’ve got a great mix of defensive defenseman and maybe a little more offensive defensemen.

"We’ve got good size back there. We’ve got 16 total and five of them play regularly for sure and there are six kids in there here and there. We had a couple new kids come in this year who could play right away so it allowed us to have that depth going forward."

If the Cardinals have a particular defensive style it’s that they like to swarm and outnumber the opponents’ offensive players as much as they can with players who can skate well and move the puck.

Once they gain control of the puck, though, the defensemen are also expected to move the puck up and be aggressive on the offensive end.

Fortunately, the Cardinals have a good mix of players who have the ability to do a little bit of both and be effective at each.

After last year’s close call against Mt. Pleasant in the playoffs, the Cardinals are on a mission this season to earn another shot.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. 

Categories: Hockey