Jan. 13—Chris Ratzloff sat the Rochester Grizzlies' goaltenders down when they returned from holiday break two weeks ago and delivered the news: Grizzlies starter and Owatonna native Zach Wiese was being called up to the Austin Bruins.
The timetable for Wiese's return to Rochester — if at all — is unknown.
While Wiese, a second-year veteran, will be missed in Rochester — he is 13-2-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage this season — his absence means more opportunities for the Grizzlies' other goalies.
"We talked about, Zach's getting called up, we don't know for how long, so you guys need to fill that void for as long as he's not here," said Ratzloff, the Grizzlies' third-year head coach. "Being a goalie, anytime a spot opens up you'd better recognize it as an opportunity, because if you don't ... there aren't a lot of those spots available."
The "goalie shuffle" that has occurred with the Grizzlies, one of the top franchises in the North American 3 Hockey League, and their big brother in the NAHL, the Bruins, began a couple of weeks ago.
Moorhead native Hudson Hodges — a second-year NAHL vet who was the No. 1 guy in net for the Bruins when this season started — was traded to North Iowa on New Year's Eve. That trade came in large part because Klayton Knapp, an 18-year-old NAHL rookie from Waterville, Ohio, grabbed that starting job with his strong play leading up to, and out of, the holiday break.
Knapp is 8-4-1 with a 2.00 GAA, a .926 save percentage and one shutout. His GAA is the best in the league among goalies who've played at least 11 games. His save percentage ranks fifth in the league.
"He has just kind of been steady since we got him here," Bruins coach Steve Howard said of the 6-feet-2, 181-pound Knapp. "You can see it with him. When you watch a goalie who takes pride in everything he does, it's ... he's all business. He gets here early, leaves late. You see a kid work that hard and he's been doing well for us."
Knapp's play hasn't gone unnoticed. He's been called up by the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers for their games Saturday and Sunday at Muskegon, Mich. Austin has another goalie who'll be joining the team, but he has battled injuries and needs to work his way into game shape.
All of that adds up to Wiese getting his first NAHL start on Saturday when the Bruins visit St. Cloud. Knapp is expected to start Friday's home game against St. Cloud before joining Green Bay.
"He's here every day competing," Howard said of Wiese. "He's a good goalie, very mobile and quick. He's doing all that he needs to do here right now."
Meanwhile, the cupboard in Rochester is far from bare. Lucas Henderson and Kaleb Bents have combined for an 11-2-1 record, a 1.73 GAA and a sparkling .938 save percentage.
And Niko Goich, who has a 2-2-0 record in six games with the Bruins this season, has joined the Grizzlies. He was sharp in his first start for Rochester last Saturday, making 28 saves while suffering a tough-luck 1-0 loss at Peoria.
"We just want him to get his confidence back," Howard said of Goich. "He started out really well and he got the opportunity to go up to the USHL and skate with those guys for about three weeks, but he missed some games here. When he came back he was just a little nervous in the first couple games.
"He's young; he's an '04 (2004-born). ... It'll be good for him to play some games (with Rochester) and get some confidence back."
Ratzloff and the Grizzlies are looking at Wiese's promotion as a positive, for multiple reasons. One, the Grizzlies' main purpose is to help players advance to higher levels. Rochester has had eight players play at least one game in the NAHL this season.
Two, Wiese's absence has made for good competition among the goalies who are on the ice in Rochester.
Wiese's callup also adds to a short but substantial list of Grizzlies goalies who have moved on to higher levels. Mathias Backstrom, the team's main netminder in its first two seasons, was the NA3HL Goalie of the Year in 2019-20, and now plays at Division III Nichols College in Massachusetts. Shane Soderwall, who backstopped the Grizzlies to the NA3HL championship game last year, is part of a strong one-two rotation for the NAHL expansion franchise in Anchorage this season.
"Practice has been interesting; they've been hungry," Ratzloff said, "maybe a little too eager at times and not as focused as they need to be, but it's really good for those guys to see that if they're doing things right, they could be a Shane Soderwall, going and having a good season for a good (NAHL) team. Or they could be Zach, getting a callup for an extended period of time.
"... For the guys who are here, it's a total reset, like 'who's going to be our guy now?'"
What: Oregon Tradesmen at Grizzlies
Records: Oregon, 20-7-3, 2nd in NA3HL Central Division; Grizzlies, 24-5-2, NA3HL Central Division leaders
When: Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m. both nights
Where: Rochester Recreation Center
Of note: The Grizzlies were swept last weekend at Peoria — 4-1 and 1-0. It's the first time they've been swept in more than two years. ... Friday's game will mark the Grizzlies' first game at the Rec Center since Dec. 18, a 6-4 win against Mason City. ... Following this weekend's series, Rochester and Oregon only meet twice more in the regular season — a March 4-5 series at Oregon to end the regular season.
Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzloff says: "(Last weekend) was a good lesson for us because that was a preview of what the playoffs will look like. The games against Granite City (a 3-2 loss at the NA3HL Showcase on Dec. 22) and the two against Peoria (last weekend), that's a good preview of how we're going to have to play, how we're going to have to win games in the playoffs. To learn that lesson now — especially with one more opportunity to go to their building in the regular season — that's big. ... We hate losing, but I'd rather lose in January than March or April."
What: St. Cloud Norsemen at Austin Bruins (Friday); Bruins at Norsemen (Saturday)
Records: St. Cloud 15-2-1, 5th place in NAHL Central Division; Austin 19-11-3, NAHL Central leader
When, Where: 7 p.m. Friday at Austin (Riverside Arena); 7 p.m. Saturday at St. Cloud (Municipal Athletic Complex)
Of note: The Bruins are 6-2-0 in their past eight games, dating back to Dec. 10. ... Just three points separate first-place Austin (41 points) from third-place Aberdeen (38 points) in the Central Division standings. Minot (39 points) sits in second place. ... St. Cloud is just four points behind fourth-place North Iowa for fourth place in the division. The top four teams in the division at the end of the regular season make the NAHL playoffs. ... Being in first place at this point of the season brings an added bonus for the Bruins: They'll be able to send more players than any other team in the division to the NAHL's Top Prospects Tournament next month.
Bruins coach Steve Howard says: "We've been talking all year about being stingy defensively and learning how to play that way. ... We had a long talk with the team and the defensemen when we got back to town on (Dec. 27, after a holiday break). We talked with our 'D' about, we need to understand game situations, and we need to play more — I call it — boring hockey, when we're ahead, play a shut-down game, not trying to be fancy, trying to shut the other team down. The guys have bought in, the defensemen especially. ... Let the other team make mistakes. Our guys have been buying in and they're seeing it pay off here."