AUSTIN — Steve Howard's phone rang one day three weeks ago.
On the other end of the line was Tim Madsen, a friend of Howard's and a guy who used to coach against him.
"He said 'I've got this kid who can really shoot the puck and he could be a game-changer for you,'" said Howard, the fourth-year head coach of the Austin Bruins. "We're pretty happy that he decided to call us."
Madsen, formerly the head coach of Austin's NAHL Central Division rival Minnesota Wilderness, was spot-on in the scouting report he delivered to Howard during that phone call. The player Madsen was calling about is Walter Zacher, a 6-foot, 170-pound forward from Buffalo, N.Y.
And, yes, Zacher can shoot the puck.
He proved that Friday night, scoring two goals, including the game winner with just 3 minutes, 14 seconds to go in the third period as the Bruins opened their season with a 4-3 victory against the Janesville (Wis.) Jets.
"What can you say about Walt? He had two absolute snipes," Howard said. "We're happy to have him. He was a big part of our night tonight."
Veterans Peter Jacobs and Barrett Brooks also scored for the Bruins, who received 17 saves from goalie Tyler Shea in the victory.
Both of Zacher's goals came at critical moments.
His first NAHL goal tied the score 2-2 less than three minutes into the second period.
Austin had taken an early 1-0 lead on Jacobs' goal, but Janesville answered with two of their own in a 10-second span, the second of which came on a shot from outside the blue line that hit a rut in the ice and took an odd hop past Shea. That gave the Jets (2-1-0) a 2-1 lead, which they held after one period.
But Zacher responded 2:38 into the second, when he took an outlet pass from Shea and led a 2-on-1 rush into the Janesville zone. Zacher carried the puck deep into the zone as the Jets' defenseman dropped to take away the passing lane. Zacher held the puck, pulled it back and curled around the prone defender before firing a heavy shot past Jets goalie Owen Millward.
"We got back to the simple things," Zacher said of the Bruins' settling into the game and playing strong second and third periods after looking out of sorts at times in the opening period. "I think we all had a lot of nerves and were throwing pucks to the wrong spots. Once we got our feet under us we really jelled and played a good game."
The game was the first for the Bruins in more than eight months. The last time the team had played a game that counted was on March 7 of this year, 251 days ago, a 4-3 win against the Chippewa Steel.
"It felt so good to get back out there," said Bruins veteran forward Carson Riddle, who played on a line with Zacher and Ohio State commit Alex Trombley. "Eight months away from the game is a long time. It hasn't been like that since I first started, so to get back out here playing in front of our fans ... it feels great."
Janesville took a 3-2 lead 4:51 into the third period on a Shane Ott goal.
As the period moved on, it seemed all of Riverside Arena was waiting for a veteran to make a big play, and Brooks delivered. At the 10:51 mark, the Western Michigan commit got a rebound of his own shot, put it on his backhand and sent it past Millward to tie the score.
"That play was huge," Howard said. "It was big for Barrett, too. He's going to be a big part of our lineup this year."
Six minutes later, Trombley sent a strong pass from the corner to Zacher in the near circle. Zacher quickly snapped a hard shot high to Millward's far-side for the game-winning goal in his NAHL debut.
"I was just out here to play hockey," said Zacher, who started the season with Sherwood Park of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but wanted to move back and play in the U.S. "I was really excited to play with Trombley and Riddle. They really helped me out a lot this week, getting ready for this game."
The win for the Bruins (1-0-0) is their third consecutive victory in a season opener. They'll face Janesville again at 7:05 p.m. Saturday night at Riverside Arena.
"Obviously there are some things to work on, but it's only the first game," Howard said. "We have some guys who can make some plays and some guys who can shoot the puck.
"Our guys are resilient and I like the fact that we didn't quit. We bounced back."
Bruins 4, Jets 3
Janesville 2 0 1 — 3
Austin 1 1 2 — 4
First period — 1. A, Peter Jacobs 1 (Barrett Brooks 1, Travis Shoudy 1) 9:03 (pp). 2. J, Jaxson Ezman 2 (Broten Sabo 1, Justin Thompson 4) 11:18 (pp). 3. J, Alexander Lucken 1 (Carter Hottmann 1, Justin Engelkes 2) 11:28. Second period — 4. A, Walter Zacher 1 (Mason Poolman 1, Tyler Shea 1) 2:38 (pp). Third period — 5. J, Shane Ott 2 (Max Itagaki 1, Blake Dangos 1) 4:51. 6. A, Brooks 1 (Noah Szretter 1) 10:51. 7. A, Zacher 2 (Alex Trombley 1) 16:46.
Shots on goal — J 11-5-4—20; A 11-6-11—28. Goalies — J, Owen Millward (L, 1-1-0; 24 saves-28 shots); A, Tyler Shea (W, 1-0-0; 17 saves-20 shots). Power-play opportunities — J, 1-for-5; A, 2-for-4. Penalties — J, 4-8 minutes; A, 5-10 minutes.
Attendance — 250. Time of game — 2:20.