MOLINE — The Quad City Storm feel ready to take the next step.
The Storm open their second season Saturday in Peoria, looking to build on the experience gained from last year and make some noise in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
"I've talked to other coaches in the league the past few days and I feel like they're skeptical in their rosters," coach Dave Pszenyczny said. "I'm confident. I feel like if you're not confident, then you have to fix something. But only time will tell. We'll see, but we're going to have a better showing than last season."
Last year, nobody knew what to expect after a whirlwind offseason. The franchise was established in May, Pszenyczny was hired in June and the puck dropped in October. It led to plenty of growing pains and an 18-33-5 season and ninth-place finish.
The team that started the season was vastly different from the one that ended it, as just seven players from the opening day roster were on the team at the end of the season. But Pszenyczny feels he's found a core he can trust as 13 players from last season's roster comprise the opening-night squad, including last seasosn's leading scorer Shane Bennett.
Added to that core are some key additions in Dakota Klecha, John Schiavo and Taylor Pryce, who bring additional skill to the team.
"We just have so much, we have a lot of firepower and I like the defensemen that we have and the system that we're going to play this year is going to be different from last year," Pszenyczny said. "We have that good nucleus to start with, but now I add in guys like Schiavo and Klecha. You need those guys to get those timely goals. They're good enough to do it on themselves, when you need it but last year, we didn't really have that."
While there's some familiar names returning to the defensive corps, it feels like a very different unit than last season. Ludlow Harris Jr. is a returning player, but only played eight games before joining the Norfolk Admirals of the ECHL. Kristaps Nimanis is also back but only played in nine games thanks to a knee injury. Cody Walsh and Sean Kacerosky are established commodities, but the only two rookies on the team are on the blue line in Mathias Ahman and Josh Victor.
Chemistry has quickly formed between the players.
"It's a great room," Victor said. "It's very rare that you only get two rookies so the vets have been great helping us along, on ice, off the ice, too, teaching us how to be professionals."
The hope is that everyone can gel in front of goaltender Peter Di Salvo. Slated to be the main starter in net, Di Salvo knows he played better than last season's 13-19-1 record indicated and he's worked hard in the offseason to shore up the things he can control.
He's also excited to finally turn the page from last season.
"Last year's done," Di Salvo said. "No one's thinking about that any more. We don't like talking about last year, not just because last year sucked for us, but it's behind us. We're moving forward and we're worried about this season and that starts on Saturday."
Without a game to go off of, the identity of the team is still a question mark. But everybody seems to be on the same page, ready to take a step, if not a leap, forward.
"We've got a bunch of guys here who are willing to do the right things and that's what championship teams are made of," returning forward Michael Casale said. "Championship teams are made of guys who understand roles, understand what they're out there to do and I think that's what we've got here. A lot of guys who know what they need to do to make this team better and that's the best part."
The Storm have a chance to make a statement right from the start. They take on last year's regular season champion Peoria Saturday, then host defending SPHL champion Huntsville for two games and then hit the road against league runner-up Birmingham for two more games.
There'd be no better way to show how far the team has come than a strong showing in those five games, but the players aren't putting too much pressure on themselves moving forward.
"We've got to play our way and establish our game because when you don't establish your game, you play on what the other team is doing, that's when things go south," Casale said. "It does matter, we've got Peoria and Huntsville back-to-back but you've got to play your system and play your way."
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