Royales Beat Writer
First place in the Great Lakes division of this early Minnesota Junior Hockey League season is up for grabs, as the Royales (11-2) take on the visiting Illiana Blackbirds (10-1) this weekend Oct. 18-20. Illiana had first place in the division until MQT passed them by one point after a three game sweep over St.Louis last weekend, which included a 25 goal three game performance for the Royales offense.
Both teams are heading into this contest currently enjoying winning streaks. The Royales are on an 11-0 run after dropping the first two games of the season and the Blackbirds are on a five game hot streak after losing to the Tri-City Icehawks on Sept. 21. Goaltending and defense have been a big part of both squads success this season as they are number one and two in goals against in the Great Lakes division with the Royales and Illiana posting 27 and 36 goals against respectively.
The netminders tasked with slowing down the offenses have been playing well also. The Blackbirds have two goalies leading the way for them early on as Konstantin Shipunov leads the league in wins with five and a .915 save percentage. Larry Pezzuto has also added four wins for Illiana in net. The Royales have had outstanding goaltending all around as they post a league high 2.6 goals against average. Nate Eminger has a league high .957 save percentage and three wins, Bryce Leaf with four wins and Walker Enstad with 3 round out the very talented roster of goalies for MQT.
"We try to play a team game where we depend on everyone to contribute to our wins," said Illiana Head Coach Reid Simpson. "But obviously you have to be extra cautious of their (MQT's) top players and bare down to score goals on top goalies."
Royales Head Coach Mike Stanaway seemed ready to face the first real strong test for his squad this weekend.
“They're (Illiana) big and strong and going to be a tough test; this is the biggest series this far,” Stanaway said.
Friday and Saturday's game will start at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday's game will start at 1 p.m.
First Line Facts For the Illiana Series
- Illiana tends to start slow with only nine first period goals on the season. The Blackbirds score 25 and 18 in the second and third periods respectively.
- Defenseman Eric Hewitt is expected to play this weekend after taking a puck to the face during the second game against St.Louis last weekend.
- MQT has been in the box for over 100 minutes more than Illiana. The Blackbirds have 260 penalty minutes compared to the Royales' 362.