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Penalties plague Packers boys hockey

Grand Forks Central goalie Taner Bender (35) makses a first-period save on a shot by West Fargo's Sage Raghib during a game earlier this season in Grand Forks. John Stennes / Forum Communications Co.

Maybe the referees are out for the Packers, or maybe the boys hockey team is just too aggressive.

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: West Fargo players are spending way too much time in the sin bin.

Penalties played a big part in the Packers' two losses last week; an aspect that co-coach Tim Capouch said has to change if his team wants to win.

"We're playing good hockey, but we have to limit our penalties," he said. "We're spending way too much time in the penalty box."

To date, West Fargo has the second-most penalty minutes in the Eastern Dakota Conference at 152. Only Fargo Davies has more with 172 minutes, while Grand Forks Central has the least with just 81.

Against Fargo South/Shanley on Thursday, the Packers (3-7 EDC, 6-9 overall) racked up eight penalties, including one 10-minute major for checking from behind by junior Alec Rowland. Coincidentally, two of the Bruins' five goals came on power plays, and contributed to their come-from-behind 5-3 victory.

In comparison, South was called for penalties just twice.

Fast forward to Saturday, and West Fargo paid Grafton-Park River a visit where penalties once again proved costly.

Although the Spoilers did spend more time in the box than their opponents, they managed to score on two of West Fargo's five penalties. The Packers, meanwhile, came up empty handed on seven power plays.

"We had good scoring opportunities, especially in the third period, but they (the Spoilers) capitalized on our penalties," Capouch said.

Given the recent news related to serious injuries as the result from checking from behind in high school hockey, it would be fair to say referees are on the lookout for dangerous plays. But in the game of hockey, a full-contact sport at its core, how should players change to minimize penalties?

In Capouch's opinion, it's about playing smarter, not harder.

"You can't tell them to not be aggressive, because we want them to be aggressive at every game," he said. "On the other hand, you can tell them to watch out when they make body contact."

That means keeping sticks on the ice, elbows down, and avoiding hitting an opponent's back at all costs, he said.

Penalties aside, the Packers are playing sound hockey. The 12 vacancies from last year's team have been filled by talented players, Capouch said, and the team is gelling as the season moves forward.

One question mark remains as to who will be in net from game to game. So far, senior goaltender Kyle Olson and sophomore Bailey Vareberg have been given equal ice time with seven games apiece. Capouch said he hopes one will step up by the time the postseason hits, but for now it's a game-time decision.

"We're picking them based on their efforts in practice," he said.

Olson is 2-5 on the season with an 89.3 saves percentage. He stopped 37 shots in West Fargo's 6-3 loss to Grafton-Park River. Conversely, Vareberg has a 90.4 saves percentage and is 4-3 overall. Against Fargo South, the Packers goalie stopped 30 shots - 10 in each period.

Whether goalies or penalty minutes change by West Fargo's next game is, obviously, unknown. To find out, head to Devils Lake on Saturday for a 2:15 p.m. puck drop against the Firebirds (0-8, 3-10).