THIEF RIVER FALLS -- When the calendar flipped to 2019, the Thief River Falls boys hockey team's offense showed some explosiveness.
In their first three games in January, the Prowlers scored seven or more goals in each game, a total of 25. Still, TRF coach Tim Bergland didn't know if that scoring pace would be sustainable.
"There aren't a lot of easy teams on our schedule,'' Bergland said. "Most of our games have been a battle.
"It's nice to have some games where you can try different guys and different stuff. But almost all of our games are down-to-the-wire nail biters.''
True to form, the next two games went overtime -- a 2-1 win against Warroad and a 4-3 loss to East Grand Forks Senior High. Those have been more the norm for the Prowlers, who have put together a strong season without an abundance of goals.
Thief River Falls entered Saturday with an 11-5-3 record. The Prowlers are ranked fourth in the latest Minnesota Class A state high school boys hockey poll.
Success has come while TRF has scored 63 goals; 38 minus those the three early-January wins. But the Prowlers have outscored their opponents 63-34.
"We don't score many goals,'' senior forward Hunter Larson said. "It puts more pressure on us to play well defensively. But we have a good defensive corps. And we capitalize on the scoring opportunities we get.''
Through its first 19 games, Thief River Falls had scored more than three goals only five times. The Prowlers played six overtime games, more than any other Section 8A team. Their four games decided by one goal in regulation tied for the most in the section.
The strength is on the defensive end. Three of the top defensemen on last season's section championship team that finished fifth at the state tournament return in Evan Bushy, Keaden Kempert and Gunnar Fellman. Tylan Johnson has stepped in to provide a fourth quality defender, while first-year goalie Noah Rupprecht (1.64 goals-against average, .932 save percentage) has been strong.
"They (defensemen) play well,'' Bergland said. "They're confident kids. And it's a team defense. Our forwards play well in our zone, too.
"Noah has played very well. And we knew he'd be good. He's fundamentally strong.''
Bushy (14 goals-13 assists) also leads the team in goals and points. "That's very unusual,'' Bergland said. "I'm in my 19th season coaching and I've never had a defenseman lead a team in scoring.''
Tucker Skime (9-13), Brock Masseth (4-15) and converted defenseman Larson (9-5) comprise the Prowlers' top line. But Bergland said the offense is about scoring by committee rather than one dominant scorer or line.
"On any given night, we don't know which line will be scoring,'' Bergland said. "We don't know which line will get the most ice time. We go with who's hot.
"Most good high school teams around here have kids who average a goal a game. It would be nice to have that. We don't have that guy yet. We've had to battle. Hopefully we can get that down the stretch. We do have a nice balance. We just hope we can keep picking up the offense.''
The experience of playing in so many close, low-scoring games is something the Prowlers hope will pay off when the postseason begins.
"It does keep it interesting,'' Larson said. "It's motivation to work hard to get better. We've been in close games all year. We've had to bear down. I think that will help us in the long run.''