Albert Lea's Johnston leads Grizzlies past Peoria, onto division finals

The Rochester Grizzlies faced a do-or-die game Sunday at the Rochester Recreation Center. They passed with flying colors, led by two goals from Albert Lea native Adler Johnston.


ROCHESTER — Adler Johnston didn't spend much time in Rochester this season.

The Albert Lea native bounced back and forth between the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey Leauge — where he was in-and-out of the lineup as a rookie forward — and Rochester, where he found a comfortable home in the lineup of the Rochester Grizzlies of the North American 3 Hockey League.

When Johnston came to Rochester at the beginning of February, he stuck with the Grizzlies and has held down a place in their lineup ever since.

His comfort level is beginning to show through. Johnston came up big for the Grizzlies on Sunday at the Rochester Recreation Center.

The 6-foot, 200-pound forward scored two goals, including the game winner with just more than 6 minutes to go in the second period, to help Rochester beat Peoria 5-1 in Game 3 of a best-of-3 NA3HL Central Division semifinal series.


"It was maybe our most complete game of the season — by far our best of the weekend," Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. "Playing at home is such a huge deal for us, especially when we're able to get that first goal. We just kept our message to the guys short: We know what to do, we've done it before, just go out and execute."

Ben Oakland scored the first goal of the game for Rochester, and did the "Lukes" — veteran forward Luke Morrisette and rookie forward Luke Sawicky scored once each — and rookie goalie Tate Cothern made 12 saves in the win.

Luke Morrisette

Rochester vastly outplayed and outshot Peoria 42-13. By the time the Mustangs were able to get one past Cothern, the Grizzlies had built a four-goal lead.

Peoria shut out the Grizzlies 3-0 in Game 2 on Saturday in Peoria to force Sunday's Game 3. But Rochester's players came to the rink focused and helped the Grizzlies improve to 10-0 all-time in division playoff games on their home ice.

Rochester is 11-5 all-time in division playoffs — 10-0 at home, 1-5 on the road.

"Finally, I think that (effort) is close to where we need to be this time of year," Ratzloff said. "We had a game plan (Saturday) night to get pucks deep, finish checks, get pucks on net and get to rebounds. We didn't execute very well. We held on to the puck to long, didn't move it quickly enough. That let Peoria trap us and we didn't break it. Our execution wasn't very good (Saturday).

"(Sunday) we were much better, moving our feet, getting pucks behind them and finishing checks. They wanted to come out and be physical, hit us all over the ice, but we didn't let them push us around and then when we pushed back, they decided maybe that wasn't the best plan."

Oakland's goal 8:23 into the game was the lone goal of the first period. Johnston scored his first of the night — the game-winning goal — with 6:15 to go in the second. Just more than two minutes later, Morrisette scored his second of the series to push the Grizzlies lead to 3-0.


Sawicky scored his second of the series at 8:16 of the third, but the Mustangs answered just 46 seconds later to pull within 4-1.

That was all the Grizzlies would give up, though, and Johnston put an exclamation point on the victory with an empty-net goal — his second of the game and third as a Grizzly — with 3 seconds remaining.

The win lifts the Grizzlies into the Central Division Finals for the third consecutive year and the third time in the franchise's five-year history. Rochester lost a first-round series to North Iowa in its inaugural season, 2018-19, then saw their postseason canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019-20. The Grizzlies won the postseason division title each of the past two seasons and advanced to the national championship game on both of those occasions, winning it for the first time last spring.

As the regular season division champions this year, the Grizzlies will have home-ice advantage against their rival Oregon (Wis.) Tradesmen. If they can win two games at the Rec Center — and improve to 12-0 all-time at home in the division playoffs — they'll be on their way to the Fraser Cup, the NA3HL's national championship tournament, for a third consecutive year.

"Just playing in front of home fans and having that extra energy, getting more (fans) in the building this year has really helped," Ratzloff said. "To get 400-500 in here for a Sunday afternoon game, having that home crowd energy really helps.
"We just don't lose at home. That's our motto. It has to have (become a mindset), to have the record we have at home in the playoffs. Just having those games at home gives the guys a little more confidence."

The schedule for the Central Division Finals has not yet been finalized, though it will likely be a "1-1-1" schedule, with Game 1 at the Rec Center on Friday, Game 2 at Oregon on Saturday and Game 3, if needed, back in Rochester on Sunday, March 19. The official schedule is expected to be posted at on Monday.


Peoria 0-0-1 — 1


Rochester 1-2-2 — 5

First period — 1. ROC, Ben Oakland 1 (Per Waage 1, Luke Jech 1) 8:23. Second period — 2. ROC, Adler Johnston 1 (Matthew Haun 1, Brady Strand 1) 13:45. 3. ROC, Luke Morrisette 2 (Ty Petzke 1, Ryan Berglund 2) 15:59. Third period — 4. ROC, Luke Sawicky 2 (Spencer Klotz 2, Petzke 2) 8:16 (pp). 5. PEO, Perry Lagatuz 1 (Tristan Trudel 2, Sean Patrick Merck 1) 9:02 (pp). 6. ROC, Johnston 2 (unassisted) 19:57 (en).

Shots on goal — PEO 4-6-3—13, ROC 11-19-12—42. Goalies — PEO, Cam Pendleton (L, 1-2-0; 37 saves-41 shots); ROC, Tate Cothern (W, 2-1-0; 12 saves-13 shots). Power-play opportunities — PEO 1-for-2; ROC 1-for-2. Penalties — PEO, 2-4 minutes; ROC, 2-4 minutes.


1. Adler Johnston, Grizzlies: The Albert Lea native scored a pair of goals, including the game winner with just more than 6 minutes to play in the second period.

2. Tate Cothern, Grizzlies: The former Mayo High School standout stopped 12 of the 13 shots he faced to win his second playoff game.

3. Ty Petzke, Grizzlies: The Grizzlies' top-scoring defenseman continued to show his offensive skill, recording two assists, his 24th and 25th of the season.

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