Joey Fodstad paid the price twice in the first period on Sunday to help the Rochester Grizzlies earn what turned out to be the game-winning goal in one of the biggest games in the brief history of the franchise.

Up 1-0 just more than eight minutes into an NA3HL Fraser Cup national semifinal game, Fodstad cut across the neutral zone, into the Sheridan Hawks’ zone and won a race against two Sheridan players to the puck along the wall. Fodstad got his stick on it first, then slid it to some open ice as he took a hard elbow to the upper body. Teammate Garrett Smith was able to corral the puck along the boards as Fodstad went hard to the front of the net and the Grizzlies’ third forward, Justin Wright, drove hard to the far post.

Fodstad camped out in front of Sheridan goalie Christian Wong-Ramos long enough for Smith to put a shot on goal. Wong-Ramos made the initial stop, but kicked it into the slot where Wright was waiting. Fodstad, meanwhile, took a hard crosscheck to the lower back that knocked him to the ice. It also distracted Wong-Ramos for a split second, just long enough for Wright to swoop in and take advantage of an open side of the net.

Wright fired the puck past the Hawks’ goalie for a 2-0 lead. The goal held up as the game winner, and Rochester tacked on two more in the period en route to a 7-1 victory and a spot in Monday’s Fraser Cup national championship game.

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“Joe’s so offensively gifted,” Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said of his third-year forward. “He made some great plays again (Sunday) night. Sometimes he’s down in a corner or along the wall and I can’t even see how great his play was until we watch it back.

“He made a great play on Wright’s goal, then got to the front of the net and took a crosscheck. … When Joe’s moving his feet and finishing checks, he’s so effective as a momentum-builder for us. He helps us gain ground in the game, as far as, when we’re doing things right we don’t play in our end as much. We’re in the other team’s end and pressuring.”

Fodstad, like linemates Peyton Hart and Matt DeRosa, have been with the Grizzlies since the beginning. They’re the three players on this year’s team who’ve been on the roster as long as the Grizzlies have been a franchise.

That trio ranks 1-2-3 in games played, goals, assists and points in Grizzlies history. Hart leads in games played (141), followed by DeRosa (134) and Fodstad (133). DeRosa leads in goals (76), followed by Fodstad (67) and Hart (57). Hart leads in assists (83), followed by Fodstad (66) and DeRosa (62). And Hart leads in total points (140), followed by DeRosa (138) and Fodstad (133).

“His awareness, his poise with the puck — he’s very, very patient and sees everything through, every possibility, which is huge in a hockey player,” Hart said of Fodstad, who has committed to Concordia College in Moorhead. “He’s been great for us. Him and Matt and I have really been clicking this past month or so, especially through the playoffs.”

Another Joey comes through

Fodstad isn’t the only Joey to have an excellent postseason for the Grizzlies.

Going into Monday’s national championship game, Fodstad led the team in points this postseason with 12 (two goals, 10 assists). Right on his heels were Smith (3-7—10) and Rochester Century grad Joey Malugani (6-4—10).

Malugani joined the team in late January after spending most of the season with Bismarck in the NAHL. He has been key contributor to his hometown team’s success, though, since joining it. Malugani has excelled in the playoffs, centering a line with Cody Reagle and fellow speedster Teppei Ueno.

Joey Malugani
Joey Malugani

“He’s one of the quickest guys on the team,” Fodstad said of Malugani. “He has awesome wheels. … He’s oozing with confidence right now.

“He has wheels, he’s so dynamic and plays his role well. He’s been one of our best forwards over the past few weeks. When he gets going, he’s really fun to watch and a really good player.”

Malugani showed off all of his skills in Sunday’s national semifinals, most impressively on the game’s first goal.

He had the puck on the far side of the ice as his linemates went to the bench for a change. He carried the puck into the Sheridan zone and slowed down, waiting for his teammates coming off the bench to get into the play. But instead of stopping, he used his quick first step and burst to beat a Hawks defender wide, cut to the net and tuck the puck around Wong-Ramos’ pad.

“He’s been great for us,” Hart said of Malugani. “He brought his speed, his integrity and his hockey IQ is through the roof. He started off (the national tournament) a little slower than he expected, but (Sunday) he was great, helping us jump out to that early lead. That’s huge, its what every team wants every time you start a game.”

An odd, but successful season

It’s been said dozens of times this season by Grizzlies players and coaches, and by players and coaches across the league: We’re just happy to have a season.

It was a strange season, to be sure, with the Grizzlies being displaced from their home arena, the Rochester Recreation Center, for close to two months at one point, as Gov. Tim Walz ordered all ice arenas in Minnesota to shut down in an effort to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Grizzlies traveled three days a week to western Wisconsin to practice.

They played 11 consecutive road games, from Nov. 20 through Jan. 10.

Yet they continued to win and win and win, and finish the regular season with a 34-5-1 mark and their second straight NA3HL Central Division title.

The Grizzlies players and coaches didn’t take the time to reflect on what they’d accomplished during the season, always keeping their eyes on the next goal. But now, with the best season in the franchise’s short history in the rearview mirror, they can take that time to reflect.

“We talk about trusting the system and trusting the process,” Ratzloff said. “From Day 1, we said this process, the gaol was to each day take a step up the hill and keep climbing in the right direction, and hopefully at the end, we’re at the top of that hill.

“We’ve enjoyed the process, with a lot of adversity, but that brings you closer together. It teaches you how to adapt when you have to. When it’s all said and done, it’s rewarding, no matter how the season ends.”