Southern Oregon Spartans first-year head coach Joe Grimaldi likes his puzzle pieces.
With the postseason just around the corner, the 26-year-old former professional is hoping they all come together soon.
Grimaldi, who took over the job after Medford's Western States Hockey League squad traded former head coach Mike Stanaway as part of a 14-player deal, will guide the Spartans into their first-round playoff series with the Ogden Mustangs this weekend at The RRRink.
Since coming to the Rogue Valley, Grimaldi has made moves to pick up additional talent. He said that the Spartans are loaded with skill, but that they lose when they stray from his system.
"Every time they play the system the right way, we win," Grimaldi said. "Every time. I feel like we are lacking a little in passion and heart and those are things that can't be taught. Those are intangibles that every championship team has.
"I feel that we are the best on paper and in individual talent in the league, but talent doesn't mean anything if the team doesn't come together."
The best-of-three Northwest Division postseason matchup begins with Game 1 at 7:35 p.m. on Friday. The second contest is scheduled for 7:35 p.m. on Saturday and, if needed, Game 3 will be played at 3:05 p.m. on Sunday.
The top four teams in each division (Midwest, Mountain, Northwest and Pacific) are eligible for the postseason, and each division will play down to one champion.
The top-seeded Idaho Junior Steelheads ran away with Northwest Division regular-season title, finishing with a 42-1-1 record. The Spartans claimed second (26-19-1), the Mustangs (18-20-1) third and the Seattle Totems (13-23-2) fourth.
The Junior Steelheads will take on the fourth-seeded Totems in the other Northwest playoff series.
The Spartans, who clinched second place after taking two of three matches on the road against the Bay Area Seals last month, shook things up in early January by making the landscape-altering trade. They parted ways with Stanaway and agreed to be part of the enormous deal with the New Mexico Renegades.
Southern Oregon went 3-3 against Ogden this year, going 1-2 in a three-game road series in October and then 2-1 at home later that month. But since then, the team has changed drastically.
Last year under Stanaway, the Spartans claimed the Northern Pacific Hockey League title and advanced to the USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championships. They finished with a franchise-best 40-12 record.
Grimaldi said his team has great depth.
"I really feel like I have three first lines," said Grimaldi, who played at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, for Team USA and later in the ECHL and AHL.
Forward Avik Bordak leads Southern Oregon in points with 47. He has a team-best 33 assists and 14 goals.
Petr Novak, whom Grimaldi helped to bring in as part of a trade with Seattle, has 42 total points this year, including six assists in 11 games with the Spartans. He owns a team-best 25 goals.
Jeff Salzbrunn, who was in Fresno, Calif., earlier this year, isn't far behind with 14 goals and 20 assists.
Grimaldi has also been pleased with the play of Kevin Edwards and Sebastian Romeo, who now make up Southern Oregon's first line. Romeo played for Grimaldi in Palm Beach, Fla., and was drafted in the Ontario Hockey League. He has received multiple NCAA Division I offers, Grimaldi said.
Grimaldi described Bordak, MJ Melanson and Novak as his second line and Marcus Fred, Dan Doyle and Jeff Salzbrunn as the third line. Melanson is being scouted by the Edmonton Oilers and has received Division I interest, Grimaldi said.
Robert Donovan, Wilhelm Brodin, Taylor McConnell and Anthony Golio are the team's top defenders, Grimaldi said.
"Defensively, we have a strong defensive core, but we have a tendency to do too much when we need to keep it simple," Grimaldi said.
Goalkeeper Sean Buckley has led the way with a 21-12 record, 99 goals allowed (3.17 per game), 953 saves and a .906 save percentage.
After the opening weekend of playoffs, the two teams left in each division will meet for the division crown March 22-24, with the higher-seeded team again hosting the lower-seeded team in a best-of-three series.
The 2013 Thorne Cup finals — which will feature all four division champions — is set for March 27-31 in McCall, Idaho. Should the Junior Steelheads also win their division, the team they defeat in the divisional finals will be invited to McCall, along with a wildcard squad.
The following weekend, April 5-9, the top two teams in the WSHL will head for the United Hockey Union (Amateur Athletic Union) national championships in Las Vegas. Joining the top two teams out of the Thorne Cup finals will be the top two squads from both the Midwest Junior Hockey League and Northern States Hockey League.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org