For the first time in five years, the Dickinson High boys hockey team opened with victories in its first three games last season, outscoring Williston, Mandan and Bottineau-Rugby by a combined margin of 29-7.
The Midgets kick off their 2018-19 campaign against the same trio, but unlike last season, all three of those games are on the road.
After a preseason jamboree slated for Nov. 17 was canceled, Dickinson opened the season without the benefit of a warmup, capturing a 5-1 victory over Williston on Tuesday, Nov. 27.
"The first week, those three games are so important," Midgets head coach Dallas Kuntz said. "A lot of teams have the luxury of tune-up games, so to speak, before they get to their conference schedule. Not us. ... But we expect to come out flying. I know we play 21 games, but our season boils down to 14 league games. We have three right off the bat, five in the first two weeks."
In a pre-season coaches poll, the Midgets were ranked ninth in the state, but were tied with Minot for third in the West Region. Dickinson will be challenged to live up to its ranking early, as six of the team's first seven contests are scheduled off home ice.
If the Midgets want to produce positive results right out of the gate, they'll have to find a better balance between aggression and discipline. With 133 penalties, Dickinson was the most-penalized team in the state last year.
If it can avoid the penalty box, the team has the talent to light up the scoreboard.
Any early season success will likely be due in part to the production of their top four scorers from 2017-18: junior forward Joey Pavek, junior defender Jaren Huglen, along with senior forwards Ryan Bren and Cody Shepard. Pavek finished eighth in the state in scoring with 39 points while Shepard, the team's leader in goals, was tied for 14th with 36 points.
Coupled with their explosiveness, the Midgets welcome back loads of experience. Ten seniors - eight of which are returners - will lead the way on the ice, doubling the team's senior total from a year ago.
"It doesn't matter whether it's in net, on the back end on D or up front as forwards, in each position group, there are seniors there that we're really going to lean on," Kuntz said. "We expect them to set the tone for us, on and off the ice. ... Off the ice and in the locker room, I think this group has the potential to really bond as a team, and I think having that many seniors is a big part of that. They've all been around the block and understand how we operate."
Bren, along with senior defender Morgan Wardner and senior forward Brayden Groll, were selected as the team's captains. The three leaders have played at least 20 games in each of the last two seasons, with Bren entering his fourth season on varsity.
"Just making sure the team's mindset is healthy, staying on the topic of hockey and that (the players) are coming to the rink everyday," Bren said of his role. "Making sure they have a purpose in what they are going to do and we get out of here, we feel good about ourselves and are ready to do it again the next day."
Groll is coming off his finest campaign with the Midgets, collecting seven goals and nine assists while playing in all 25 games last season. While his numbers don't rank as high as some of his teammates, Groll considered as one of the squad's most valuable contributors, someone Kuntz trusts to take a key face-off or be on the ice during a crucial situation.
"It's definitely pretty special to hear that, especially coming from him," Groll said. "I like that the team is able to rely on me, so I just do what I can for the team. ... I just try to lead by example. Being one of the captains, I've got to do what I expect them to do."
On the other end of the spectrum, Dickinson has 10 new players listed on its roster, all of whom will receive some playing time, according to Kuntz. The rookie class includes freshman goaltender Zachary Neitzke, who along with seniors Riley Wittenberg, Jarin Naab and junior Zachary Sprague battled through the opening weeks in practice to see who will be named team's starting goalie. Announced one night before the season opener, Naab received the nod in net.
"I go into each year as its own year as far as goaltenders go. Just because a person had a little bit of success last year, that kind of gets put aside," Kuntz said. "This year is a fresh year for us. ... In practice, the compete and having four goalies on the ice is nice. In a sense, we're able to do a lot of different stuff in different areas. Everyone brings their own element to our team."
Dickinson is aiming for its fifth overall appearance in the state tournament and its fourth consecutive birth. Qualifying each of the previous three seasons as the West's fourth seed, the Midgets have their sights set on having a better showing at regionals and entering the big dance with an improved seed.
"Expectations are always going to be high; that'll never change," Kuntz said. "Like we tell the boys, expectation-that's just a word. The proof is in the pudding. You got to go out and put the work in. I think and I really hope that this team is up to the task. I'm excited, and I think it's going to be a great year for high school hockey here in Dickinson. I'm just looking forward to it."