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July 28, 2014

Points on the Purple Daily: July 28

Posted by: Feldman

Each week during the Vikings season, me and my fellow P-B sports scribe Guy N. Limbeck write "Points on the Purple" for our Vikings Playbook page in the Weekend print edition. We'll make this as close to a daily feature as possible here at the blog, with a smaller dose of POTP.

1. Yo, Adrian! Adrian Peterson talked to the media after this morning's walkthrough at Blakeslee Stadium. The MVP addressed a lot of topics, perhaps the most noteworthy is his love for the scheme that new O.C. Norv Turner has put in place. And in doing so, A.P. finally said what we all said for the previous three years: Bill Musgrave's system stunk. A.P. was a little nicer, terming it "predictable." You can read more of what A.P. had to say today in this story.

2. Flip-flopping on Teddy. It was just two days ago that I called the Vikings' starting QB job Matt Cassel's, unless rookie Teddy Bridgewater has a Russell Wilson-like preseason. Do I have to start walking toward the Team Teddy Bandwagon? I'll wait to sprint for my spot until we see a couple of preseason games, but Bridgewater was sharp tonight, leading the second team offense in a practice under the lights at Blakeslee Stadium. He went 12-for-13 passing, the only miss being a whiff by rookie tight end AC Leonard. Bridgewater obviously hasn't won the job yet, but he hasn't hurt himself. Cassel is at least hearing Bridgewater's footsteps behind him now.

3. Considering where a lot of sixth-round draft picks end up (not on NFL rosters), Blair Walsh could probably be considered a steal. Sure, he's a kicker, but he's a darn good one. His rookie season was outstanding (35-for-38 on field goals, 10-for-10 from 50-plus yards). He regressed a bit as a sophomore, with a 26-for-30 season (2-for-5 from 50-plus), but sounds very confident heading into his third year. He made 6 of 7 field goals Monday night, including both of his attempts from 50-plus (50, 52). His lone miss was wide right from 44 yards. Vikes head coach Mike Zimmer has talked all offseason about creating competition at every position, but Walsh can relax and just kick in camp this year; he is at one of very few positions where there is no competition. There are just one kicker and one punter (Jeff Locke) on the 90-man roster.

July 27, 2014

Points On The Purple Daily, July 27: Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!

Posted by: Feldman

The biggest news through the first three days of Minnesota Vikings training camp broke late tonight: Kyle Rudolph has been elevated to the top tier of NFL tight ends.

Rudolph, the Vikings' 2nd-round draft pick in 2011 (the year they drafted Christian Ponder in Round 1), signed a five-year, $36.5 million extension on Sunday, with $19.5 million guaranteed.

Tight ends don't get that kind of money for being good blockers in the running game. This big-money deal for Rudy says more about where the Vikings' new coaching staff expects him to go under Norv Turner's offense than what he's done in his first three seasons in the NFL.

This is a great deal for both sides. At 6-feet-6, 259 pounds, not only does Rudolph give QBs Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater a big target, he's also fast and agile for his size. The obvious comparison here is what the New Orleans Saints have done with Jimmy Graham. Of course, it's  not fair to expect Rudolph to catch 85 balls for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, BUT at $7.3 million per year, it's clear that Turner and head coach Mike Zimmer expect Rudolph to be a huge part of the passing game.

And that's exciting for Vikings fans, to add Rudolph's pass-catching skills on top of receivers Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright. 

There are some injury concerns with Rudolph, dating back to his time at Notre Dame. Rudolph only played in eight games last season because of a foot injury, but to be fair, Rudolph played in 31 of 32 games during his first two seasons, and he caught nine TD passes in 2012.

With Rudolph's combination of size, strength and agility, Turner has to be salivating about using him in red zone situations, especially when the Vikings have the ball near the goal line. 

According to OverTheCap.com, Rudolph's deal makes him the fifth-highest paid tight end in the NFL, in terms of average annual value of his contract behind Graham ($10.0 M/year); New England's Rob Gronkowksi ($9.0 M/year); Dallas' Jason Witten ($7.4 M/year) and San Francisco's Vernon Davis ($7.35 M/year).

"I'm extremely excited to get this extension completed and continue my career with the Minnesota Vikings," Rudolph said in a press release. "I've said all along I wanted to stay in Minnesota. I love the fans, the community and most importantly, I'm excited about where this team is going."

Rudolph has 109 catches for 1,055 yards and 15 TDs in 39 career games (32 starts).

July 26, 2014

Points On The Purple Daily, July 26

Posted by: Feldman 

A new head coach. (Possibly) a new starting quarterback. A new (temporary) home stadium. An old punter stirring the pot.

We're only two days into Minnesota Vikings training camp and there is already so much to talk about. Why not do some of that on this blog?
 
In every Weekend Post-Bulletin during the Vikings season, me and the P-B's version of Sid Hartman, sports writer Guy N. Limbeck, do a column called "Points on the Purple." It's a back-and-forth, give-and-take (usually me giving Limbeck the business for his homerish opinions) about the state of the Vikings.
 
We'll try to bring some of that to the Faceoff blog during training camp, the preseason and regular season. And by "we" I mean "me." I don't think Limbeck knows what a blog is, much less how to log in and write in this space. 
 
Enough about us, though, football season is here, so let's talk some Vikings!
 
Each day, I'll do my best to come up with four "Points" about the Purple. Some days I'll add an Extra Point, just because I feel like babbling on, and the Interwebs offer limitless space.
 
Here are today's Points On The Purple:
 
1. The QB Battle. I'm definitely in the minority with this opinion, at least if I use Twitter as a judge (and we all know, if you read something on Twitter, it has to be true. Right?), but to me, there's no battle for the starting QB job. At least right now. It's Matt Cassel's job. Could Teddy Bridgewater play his way into that spot, or at least make it a battle? Absolutely. But he hasn't yet. He hasn't had enough of a chance. Unless Bridgewater has a Russel Wilson-like presason, he'll be a backup when the Vikings open the regular season on Sept. 7 at St. Louis. This doesn't mean Cassel will still be the starter in Week 17, when Chicago comes to TCF Bank Stadium. It just means there's nothing wrong with letting Bridgewater be an attentive student for most, if not all, of the season.
 
2. Keep calm about Cordarrelle. Vikings coaches and fans -- and many people around the NFL, for that matter -- are expecting big things from second-year WR Cordarrellle Patterson this season. So a few eyebrows were raised, as were some blood pressure rates, when fans found out Patterson didn't practice on the first two days of camp due to a foot injury. It's OK to take a deep breath and relax about this one. While the Vikings were practicing Saturday afternoon, Patterson was working with a trainer on one of the practice fields. Head coach Mike Zimmer said Patterson and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (hamstring) are close to returning.
 
3. Blanton and the safety battle. One of the position battles in the spotlight in Mankato is the competition for the starting job opposite Harrison Smith at safety. Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond are the names most often mentioned as the top candidates to win that job, as well as veteran free-agent acquisition Kurt Coleman. Andrew Sendejo had been considered a front runner, too, but he has started training camp on the PUP list and his return does not sound imminent. With players putting pads on for practice, beginning Sunday, every practice, every rep Sendejo misses is costly. Don't count out 2012 fifth-round draft pick Robert Blanton, though. Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards gave Blanton, who was teammates with Smith in college at Notre Dame, reps with the first team during mini-camp practices this summer. Blanton dressed for all 16 games last season, starting three in December. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder led the Vikings with 19 special teams tackles last season. In the season finale against Detroit, he started and recorded 14 tackles, the second-most in a game by a Viking last season (Sendejo had 17 vs. Washington). He was also credited with six pass breakups and two tackles for loss last year. 
 
4. Will the defensive ends hold up? The Vikings gave defense end Everson Griffen a five-year, $42.5 million contract in the offseason. They locked up DE Brian Robison a year earlier with a four-year, $28 million deal. That's a lot of money for guys who have never had a 10-sack season. Robison has been solid, recording 25.5 sacks over the past three years. Griffen has 17.5 in his four-year career. Last year, Robison appeared to shed his reputation of wearing down in the second half of seasons. He had eight of his nine sacks in the final nine games. The big question that will loom this season, though, is: Can they keep that up without Jared Allen's presence in the lineup? Perhaps Zimmer's scheme -- with pressure possibly coming from any direction on any given snap -- will help offset the loss of Allen. Griffen is saying all the right things, particularly that he thrives on and lives for the pressure he'll face this season. He'll be better against the run than Allen was, but, fairly or not, he'll likely be judged by the number of sacks he produces.
 
Extra Points: I made my first trip of this training camp to Mankato today and was reminded of a copule guys that you can count on seeing every year that make me chuckle or cringe, or both. These are guys to watch out for, and possibly mock, if you choose.
 
The first is Intense Fan. We've all seen this guy in the bleachers at MSU Mankato. He's the one who is so focused on a Day 2 training camp walkthru -- which, by the way, is nothing more than football players in jerseys and shorts, literally walking around and simulating game play -- that he can't be bothered by anyone or anything around him. "Honey, you have to keep the kids quiet! I'm trying to hear what's going on out there!" Intense Fan believes Jerick McKinnon will be a Pro Bowler because he witnessed first-hand McKinnon (wearing jerseys and shorts) catch a pass and run untouched to the end zone, while the defensive players (wearing jerseys and shorts) didn't even bother to pursue him. 
 
The second guy you'll see is Serious Security Guy. He's the guy who stands in the median on Stadium Road, halting traffic when a Vikings player or coach needs to cross the road from Myers Field House to the practice fields. Serious Security Guy will quickly and emphatically hold his arm straight out, with his palm facing you, making sure you know you need to stop your vehicle while a person is walking across the road, in a crosswalk. Once said person has safely crossed the road, SSG will start waving his arm toward you like he's telling you to hurry up and round third base because the throw is already at the cutoff man. I learned today that Serious Security Guy does not like it when you chuckle at him as you drive past while he's urging you toward home plate. 
 
Oh, there's also Sunburned Journalist Guy. He usually gets mocked by Intense Fan and Serious Security Guy. Feel free to join in. He can take it.

July 25, 2014

High School Hockey | 3 from Rochester make Elite League

Posted by: Feldman

Thinking back to late February and the high school hockey playoffs, about the time I was putting together the All-Area Boys Hockey Team for last season, I kept thinking about what it would be like to see Riese Zmolek of Rochester Century and Griff Slightam of Rochester Lourdes on the ice together as a defensive pairing.

Slightam missed the entire hockey season last year with an injury, but as soon as he started his recovery, he had his eyes set to this winter, to November and the start of his senior season.

Still, what a pairing that would be. Zmolek can do just about anything the Panthers need him to do -- rush the puck up the ice, skate through traffic to create a shot or space for a teammate, handle the puck, run point on the power play or play down low. Slightam is a guy who can play a physical game and provide offensive punch at the same time. Seeing those two together would make any coach pretty happy.

We just might get to see that combo this fall, as Slightam, Zmolek and Lourdes goalie Jack Burkel have all been named to Team Northeast for the Upper Midwest High School Elite League.

Rochester Mayo's Logan Haskins and Dodge County's Tanner Dufault both made a tryout roster, but did not advance.

Here are all the rosters for the Elite League; these were released a week ago today.

Zmolek, Burkel and Slightam are all very worthy of their selections.

Zmolek had 38 points (12-26--38) in 26 games last season for Century, which finished 12-13-1. He was among the Panthers' go-to players, putting up at least one point in 21 of his 26 games.

Burkel went 7-15-1 on a 7-19-1 Lourdes team that was hit hard by injuries and lost in the Section 1A semifinals. He had a 3.53 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage, facing an average of 31.26 shots per game.

Slightam missed all of his junior season, after putting up 22 points in 30 games as a sophomore. He had a tremendous postseason run that year, collecting five points, including three goals, in six postseason games.

All three will be seniors this season.

A somewhat interesting side note, the other goalie on Team Northeast is Eagan's Andrew Lindgren. He's the younger brother of St. Cloud State goalie Charlie Lindgren, who starred in high school at Lakeville North and was a thorn in the side of Rochester's public school teams during the Section 1AA playoffs for four years.

Training camp for the Elite League begins in just more than a month, Aug. 29-30, in Blaine.

June 05, 2014

Junior Hockey | Breaking down the Austin Bruins draft

Posted by: Feldman

If there is a job in which people put more miles on their vehicle than that of a hockey scout, I'm not sure what it would be.

But, that's how championship teams are built. The Austin Bruins' scouts (and coaches, who also scout, of course) are earning their dollars this offseason. 

The Bruins went into Tuesday's North American Hockey League Draft with their sights set on drafting a goalie with a high pick. They were hoping to use their first-round pick, 20th overall, to help fill the void left by the departure of three-year Bruin Nick Lehr, a U of Minnesota commit.

That's where the scouting comes in. Bs assistant coach Jamie Huffman watched Eastview High School standout and Minnesota First Team All-State goalie Zach Driscoll at an Omaha Lancers (USHL) camp last weekend. Huffman came away convinced that Driscoll needed to be at the top of the list of the 4-5 goalies the Bruins had their eyes on.

And so there was no hesitation when Driscoll was still available at No. 20. The Bruins made Driscoll their first pick, after talking to him, to the Lancers and to St. Cloud State, where the 17-year-old has committed to play his college hockey. Driscoll still has a year of high school remaining, but he told the Bruins coaches he's ready to come to Austin this fall. The Lancers and SCSU have also expressed their pleasure with Driscoll possibly spending at least one season in black and yellow.

Here's the story I wrote for Wednesday's Post-Bulletin, which has more statistical data on Driscoll. 

Like I wrote in that story, if Driscoll comes to Austin and stays here for a full season (assuming the Lancers don't need to call him up at any point), it looks like the Bruins connected on a home run with their first pick.

The Bruins made 11 other picks in addition to Driscoll, using those on two defensemen and nine forwards. NAHL teams keep a 30-player protected list; the Bruins have 13 veterans (players eligible to return from last season's Robertson Cup runner-up team) and five tendered players (near as I can tell, those five are forwards Jacob Drinkard from Flint of the NA3HL, Evan Somoza of the California Titans 16U team and Luke Forfar from Chicago Mission U18; and defensemen Austin Wilk of the California Titans 18U team, and Ian Scheid of Blaine High School). That left 12 spots to fill in the draft.

They went with Driscoll first. Here's a look at the other 11, in the order they were drafted:

ROUND 2 (No. 44 overall): Max Gottlieb, D, Bonnyville (Alberta Jr. Hockey League)

Gottlieb is a 5-foot-10, 183-pound left-handed shot. He had 4-21--25 for Bonnyville this past season. The 19-year-old is a native of Old Bridge, N.J., who previously played in the New Jersey Rockets' junior program.

ROUND 4 (No. 92 overall): Patrick Geary, F, Lloydminster (Alberta Jr. Hockey League)

The Libertyville, Ill., native put up 12-13--25 for Lloydminster last season. He's a 5-11, 185-pound '95-born forward, who played for the Chicago Young Americans U18 team in 2012-13, after playing for Team Illinois U16 the previous season.

ROUND 5 (No. 114 overall): Michael Davies, D, St. Louis U18AAA

The '97-born St. Louis native is committed to Ohio State for 2015-16. He played in two games for Dubuque of the USHL last season, while putting up 20 points in 33 games for the St. Louis AAA U18 team. He also played in four games for the Team USA U17 team.

ROUND 6 (No. 134 overall): Patrick Polino, F, Green Bay (USHL)

The Buffalo native is a 5-9, 160-pound center who has spent the past two seasons in the USHL. He played 60 games for the Chicago Steel in 2012-13, then split time between Chicago and Green Bay last season. He had 13 points in 46 total games in 2013-14. Polino is a '95-born player.

ROUND 7 (No. 151 overall): Alex Jasiek, F, St. Louis U18 AAA

The Bruins took another St. Louis native (maybe they like how well St. Louis kid Trey Dodd played this past season?) in Jasiek, a '96-born forward who has already committed to Dartmouth. He's listed at 5-9, 157 and is a scorer. Jasiek had 21-34-55 in 35 games for St. Louis this season. He also appeared in two USHL games for Des Moines.

ROUND 8 (No. 164 overall): Adam Durkee, F, Fort McMurray (Alberta Jr. Hockey League)

The Bruins went back to Canada one more time to find a 5-11, 188-pound, 20-year-old center. The Lafayette, Colo., native has one year of junior eligibility remaining. He played the past two seasons for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, where he put up 35-36--71 in 116 games. 

ROUND 9 (No. 176 overall): Kyle Eastman, F, Tri-City (USHL)

Eastman is the second of two players picked by the Bruins whose most recent team was in the USHL. Eastman had 22 points and 105 penalty minutes in 101 games for Tri-City over the past two seasons. The 6-1, 201-pounder is from Angola, N.Y.

ROUND 10 (No. 188 overall): Evan Weinger, F, L.A. Jr. Kings U18

Weinger is an L.A. native, with a big frame for a 17-year-old (he's listed at 6-0, 187). He had 12-14--26 in 35 games with the Jr. Kings this season. 

ROUND 11 (No. 199 overall) Zach Kennedy, F, Northland Pines (Wisconsin H.S.)

Kennedy was an honorable mention all-state player for Northland Pines, putting up 29-16--45 in 24 games as a senior. Local fans may remember watching him play in the Kiwanis Festival at Graham Arena in Rochester right after Christmas. He led his team to the championship game, recording six points in the tournament. He had a hat trick against Rochester John Marshall in the opening round.

ROUND 12 (No. 207 overall) J.C. Maclean, F, New Jersey Rockets

John Carter Maclean is another young, big body. The 17-year-old center is listed at 6-2, 201. He had 10-15--25 in 26 games at Delbarton Prep in N.J. in 2012-13 before moving on to the N.J. Rockets this past season.

ROUND 13 (No. 212 overall): Blake Christensen, F, Lincoln Stars (USHL)

The 5-10, 154-pound, '95-born forward is a native of Rochester Hills, Mich. He played with three different USHL teams last season, putting up 11 points over the final 23 games for Lincoln. In 2012-13, he played in 29 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program; 27 games with the U17 team and two games with the U18 team.

Notes...

* When I talked to Bs head coach Chris Tok after Tuesday's draft, he noted that the team has been able to branch out the past two years, in terms of which leagues it looks at to pick players from. They took three players from Canadian leagues in this draft, as well as a New Jersey Rockets player. Tok said in his first couple of years in Austin, players from other leagues were hesitant to leave their league to come and play in Austin for a relatively new team. But with the success the Bs have had the past two seasons -- two regular season division titles, one postseason division title and a trip to the Robertson Cup Finals -- players are changing their tunes. Now, guys who play in Canada, or out east, or who are borderline USHL players are more willing to come to Austin, because they see that with hard work and buying into what the coaches say, they'll have a good shot to win and move on to play college hockey.

* Tok said wanted a goalie and at least one defenseman early. Their plan played out, as they got Driscoll in the first round, and defensemen in the second and fifth rounds. They then went heavy on forwards to fill some needs.

* The next step toward the Bruins locking in their roster for the 2014-15 season are a pair of tryout camps -- one on June 19, the other in mid-July.

If you haven't seen it yet, the Bruins' 2014-15 schedule is out. I'll look at that more in-depth sometime in the coming weeks, after the high school sports season has wrapped up.

June 03, 2014

Junior Hockey | Bruins looking for 'everything' in today's NAHL Draft

Posted by: Feldman

The North American Hockey League season has only been over for about three weeks, but the calendar has flipped to the 2014-15 season for coaches and players.

That includes the Austin Bruins, who aren't far removed from the best season in the team's brief four-year history. Austin made an entertaining and, at times, dramatic run through the postseason before running into the best team in the NAHL in the Robertson Cup Finals. The Bs were swept in Fairbanks, Alaska, 2-0 in the best-of-3 Finals. But the playoff run was a memorable way for some talented players to end memorable careers in black and yellow. 

Eleven players from that team were born in 1993, meaning they've used up their junior hockey eligibility. We know a number of them have already secured places to play this fall -- Joe Schuldt (Michigan Tech), Lucas Kohls (UMass-Lowell), Eli May (MSU Mankato), Jay Dickman (Bemidji State), and Nick Lehr (Minnesota). I'm sure the other '93s -- Josh Bretner, Drew Anderson, Austin Nelson, Kody Reuter, Scotty Nelson and Easton Viitala -- could find a place to continue their careers if they chose to. The reason the Bs went so far is because all of these guys were willing to play a specific role that was asked of them, and they did it well. 

But the Bs have to turn the page and figure out how to replace not only those 11 '93s, but possibly six other guys from this year's team who won't be back in the fall. We know Niko Hildenbrand and Trey Dodd were drafted by USHL teams. Guillaume Leclerc (a UMass-Lowell commit) signed a tender with the new Madison, Wis., franchise in the USHL. Sam Kauppila was previously drafted by a USHL team and I'd have to believe guys like Luke Dietsch, Casey Jerry (a MSU Mankato commit) and Charlie Manley (an RPI commit) will get some looks by higher-level teams, too.

So that leaves the Bs locker room at Riverside Arena kind of bare. For now.

The Bruins held their first offseason tryout camp in Milwaukee the weekend after the season ended. They'll have another evaluation camp later this month, followed by one final tryout camp in mid-July. Those next two camps will be the ones to watch, as the Bs coaches will really start to hone in on the guys they want to be on the team come September -- yes, that's right, Bruins fans, these deep postseason runs make for short offseasons. The Bruins will open fall camp in approximately three months.

Before those tryout camps, though, the Bruins will go through the NAHL Draft, which begins at 1 p.m. today.

You can follow the draft at NAHL.com, on Twitter at @NAHLHockey, or a live audio broadcast is available at FastHockey.com.

The Bruins will pick 20th in each round of the 24-team draft. 

In the past, the Bruins have been able to gamble with some of their picks on higher-end players, guys who have a good shot at making a USHL team, but who offer a lot of upside if they don't make a USHL roster. Austin will still do some of that this season, but they'll have to keep a close eye out for guys who they think can come in and make an impact right away.

"We have to bring in guys who will make a difference," Bruins coach Chris Tok said. "We'll probably go 50/50 on drafting (high-end guys who may make it in the USHL) and guys who will come here right away."

In addition to the draft, the Bruins will fill their roster with players they've already tendered and guys they discover in upcoming tryout camps. We know a few of the Bruins tenders so far, though I haven't tracked down all of them. I know D Austin Wilk and F Evan Somoza from the California Titans program have tendered, as has F Jacob Drinkard, who played for the Flint (Mich.) Jr. Generals of the NA3HL last season. Two other tenders, Luke Forfar and Ian Scheid, were selected in the USHL Draft.

So, if I had to guess where the Bruins will go in the first few rounds of the draft, I'd guess they'll target a goalie (I know they have one tendered, but I believe he was also picked in the USHL Draft), then some speed up front and a puck-moving defenseman along the lines of Cody Dixon and Josh Bretner.

That said, I wouldn't be shocked if they spend their first three picks on forwards. There are so many roster spots wide open right now that the Bs really just need to stockpile good players.

"Anybody who comes in has to contribute," Tok said. "We won't draft a guy just to have a body here."

I'll also do my best to Tweet all of the Bruins picks (find me @PBFeldy), and I'll have a wrap-up of the Draft here tonight, as well as in the P-B print edition on Wednesday.

May 09, 2014

Junior Hockey | Bruins start quest for (Robertson) Cup tonight

Posted by: Feldman

A little more than eight months ago, I stood in the parking lot at Riverside Arena in Austin next to Austin Bruins assistant coach Jamie Huffman, watching a new Bruins team go through one of its first dryland workouts of the new season.

I knew fewer than half the guys there, the result of a big roster turnover from the 2012-13 season when some highly skilled veterans led the Bs to their first North American Hockey League Central Division regular season title. 

In an off-the-record (at the time) conversation, Huffman told me he thought this team could develop into something special, that it could go just as far as the previous year's team, which lost D-I recruits A.J. Reid (Air Force), Brandon Wahlin (U Mass), CJ Smith (USHL, UMass-Lowell recruit), John Simonson (USHL; North Dakota recruit) and goalie Jason Pawloski (USHL; MSU Mankato recruit). It also lost Cody Dixon, one of the most prolific scoring defensemen in the NAHL and captain Chris Fischer, a 3-year Bruin. In all, the Bs lost more than 320 points from a team that lost to rival Bismarck 3-1 in the postseason division finals. 

So I wasn't sure if it was coach-speak when Huffman told me a team that had one of its top seven scorers back (Jay Dickman) and loaded with young players and new players, could match or exceed what the previous team had done.

I'm not sure head coach Chris Tok even believed it at the time. I mean, it's not like he thought they'd be a 20-win team or something, but as the Bruins have learned in a short time, it's darn hard to even get out of this division in the playoffs, much less make the Robertson Cup.

But, look where the Bruins are. In just more than 2 hours, they'll line up at the Big Dipper Ice Arena (is that not one of the best names for a rink ever?) in Fairbanks for the Robby Cup finals. Austin and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are the only two teams remaining in the NAHL playoffs. 

Game 1 is at 10:30 CDT tonight. Game 2 is at the same time Saturday, with Game 3 (if necessary) at 8 p.m. Sunday.

It's a testament to the job this coaching staff -- Tok, Huffman, Keaton Wolf and Elliott Hogue -- have done in building a true team. There are some D-1 players on this team, but the Bruins do not have the ability to flip a switch and break loose for 4-5 goals, like last year's team did.

This year's team reminded me of (WARNING! NoDak reference coming!) watching my favorite college team, the University of North Dakota, this year. There's nothing flashy about it, but it has very good goaltending, a solid corps of defenseman who are more than willing to contribute to the scoring, and a gritty group of forwards that work their tails off for everything they get.

Nothing has come easy for the Bruins this season. They've gone through more injuries and absences and shuffled lines and defensive pairings than a team should ever expect to go through in a season. Yet, here they are, ready to play for a national title.

As much as it's a testament to the coaches, it's just as much a testament to the players. They have done everything asked of them. From the start of fall camp, the guys who are still on the team have bought in to what Tok and the assistants ask of them. And they learn quickly, if they don't live up to expectations, they don't play. 

I've said it before, but the way Tok and his assistants run this program is very reminiscent to a Division I college program (Tok was a 4-year assistant at Michigan Tech before coming to Austin). Players know that. They see the success that comes from listening to the coaching staff and being willing to play the role(s) that are asked of them.

None of this is to say the team has been perfect. They weren't good on the road for much of the regular season, but, man, have they turned that around in the playoffs. When they went back to Bismarck for Games 3 and 4 of the division finals with the series tied 1-1, there was a part of me that didn't think they'd bring the series back to Austin. Bismarck is a tough place to play, but the Bs found a way to win Game 4 and get back home, where they won Game 5 on a late Jay Dickman goal. 

Then they went to Topeka, which features two of the league's most dynamic forwards, lost the opening game of a best-of-3 series, but bounced back to win Games 2 and 3 to advance to Fairbanks.

So, do I think Fairbanks is the favorite this weekend? Yep, I do. 

Playing up there, after the long travel, the time zone change, the small rink with fans right on top of you, against a dynamic team, none of that is easy. It's sorta like being amid a swarm of bees, where there's no easy way out (cue the cheesy 80s "Rocky" theme song). You're going to have to get stung to make it through. 

Some teams are the most comfortable when being stung. The Bruins look like one of those teams.

John Peterson, the radio play by play voice of the Bs, said this team has the look and feel of a team of destiny. I'm not going to argue with him. 

* * * * *

LINKS FROM THE RINKS

ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN

* Kudos to our editorial writers for putting this piece out today. Our View: On and off the ice, Bruins are a success story

* My story on Bruins head coach Chris Tok. Find out why he's called "Grumposaurus."

* My preview of the series: Bruins are two wins away from national title.

* The series at a glance: records, key players, notes, etc. on Austin and Fairbanks.

FAIRBANKS DAILY NEWS-MINER

* Three Ice Dogs players were on the team that won the 2011 Robertson Cup.

* Ice Dogs, Bruins are no strangers

May 02, 2014

Junior Hockey | ...Because it's the (Robertson) Cup -- Austin vs. Topeka

Posted by: Feldman

I'd like to be in Topeka tonight. I'd also love to be in Chicago. Instead I'm splitting the difference and staying at my Playoff Hockey HQ, my desk in the P-B sports department.

We'll have the Wild-Blackhawks game on at 8:30, with the Game 1 of the NAHL Robertson Cup semifinals featuring the Austin Bruins at the Topeka RoadRunners on the laptop starting at 7 p.m. If you're in or near Austin, I believe they'll have the FastHockey.com feed on TV at the Eagles tonight. It's also available on FastHockey.com or you can listen to the energetic call of John M. Peterson on KAUS 1480-AM.

I'll also provide updates about both Wild/Blackhawks and Bruins/RoadRunners on Twitter (@PBFeldy).

We'll see if John can get me to jump out of my seat with a call like this one from late Wednesday night; but I can also guarantee you that, even if the Bruins win on a dramatic OT goal, Peterson's call will not be as obnoxious as this thing.

It's only been 3 1/2 days since the Bruins captured their first Central Division postseason championship late Monday evening. They took the day off Tuesday to rest, practiced for about an hour and a half Wednesday at Riverside Arena, skated there Thursday morning, then hit the road for the 420-mile trek to Topeka, Kansas, for the Robertson Cup/USA Hockey Junior A, Tier II national semifinals.

Bs fans, if you're hoping for a couple more home games this season, you need to pull hard for the Bruins and even harder for the Michigan Warriors to upset the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the other best-of-3 Robertson Cup semifinal series. If Austin and Michigan win this weekend, the Warriors will come to Austin for the Robertson Cup finals next Friday through Sunday (a best 2-out of-3 series).

But the Bruins have a big challenge in front of them now, at Topeka, which features another of the NAHL's best goalies, PJ Bridges, and two of the league's top-five scorers, Tyler Poulsen and Jake Kamrass. (Interesting footnote: Kamrass is a UMass-Lowell recruit; he'll play college hockey with current Bruin Guillaume Leclerc and former Bruin CJ Smith.) And speaking of Leclerc, he's still home in Franois, France, with his family. Best wishes out to him and his family.

We're about 5 hours from the opening drop of the puck in Topeka. Here's some reading/viewing material to help you pass the time between now and the start of Game 1:

ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN

* The Bruins are a happy, confident group entering the Robertson Cup.

* Bruins forward Austin Nelson has battled through a lot in his three years in Austin. He plays through pain on a nightly basis, but he's finally getting rewarded for his perseverance with a chance to play in the Robertson Cup.

* Our coverage from the Bruins' Central Division finals Game 5 victory against Bismarck on Monday: the game story by Guy N. Limbeck, and a short sidebar on the victory, complete with a great pic of Brian Bachnak (one of my favorite Bs) celebrating the game's first goal.

* The Robertson Cup semifinals at a glance. This one has records, top individuals, some stats and notes on each of the four teams in the R.C. semis.

TOPEKA CAPITAL-JOURNAL

* The RoadRunners also had to win a Game 5 on Monday and they face the same short turnaround the Bruins did.

* RoadRunners face the unknown in Robertson Cup semifinals.

* RoadRunners beat writer Rick Peterson Jr. can be followed on Twitter @RickiePeterson

KAAL-TV

* Bruins fed off fans energy to win Game 5.

KIMT-TV

* Bruins ready for trip to Topeka

* Good stuff here, if you haven't seen it yet. Highlights of Austin's Game 5 win over Bismarck and a live post-game interview with Bs forward Jay Dickman, who tipped Austin Nelson's shot in for the game-winning goal in the third period.

* * * * *

Some more notes...

A DUNN DEAL

* This time of year, there aren't many guys that I haven't written about. But one of them with the Bruins is defenseman Cory Dunn. I remember seeing him on the ice in one of Austin's first practices of the season and thinking "that must be one of their speedy young forwards."  When I saw him go through defenseman drills I thought "whoa, he doesn't look very big for a D."

Then again, with the way hockey is going these days, he doesn't have to be big. Not that Dunn is small, either, he's listed at 5-10, 150 pounds, but standing between guys like Kody Reuter and Eli May, he sticks out.

Dunn has gone through some ups and downs this season; he was scratched a lot early in the year. He played one game in October. But since late October, Dunn has pretty much been a fixture in the Bruins lineup. 

And the Trenton, Mich., native just might be the Bruins most improved player from the start of the season til now. His role has increased steadily throughout the season, to the point where he's now getting extensive time on the power play.

With all the injury issues and lineup shuffling for the Bs this season, Dunn's reliability has become invaluable.

"Once he got his shot, he really fit into his role as a puck moving defenseman," said Reuter, an assistant captain and third-year Bruins defenseman. "He's done a great job for us."

Austin will have to rely heavily on its defensive corps this weekend. It's a group that was maybe the biggest strength of this team coming into the season (along with starting G Nick Lehr), led by Bruins vets captain Josh Bretner, Reuter and Jake Arroyo. Eli May (who moved to forward halfway through the season) added another big body to the lineup, while Charlie Manley and Dunn brought some youth and potential to the group.

"He's had tremendous improvement," Bruins head coach Chris Tok said of Dunn. "At the beginning of the season we kind of couldn't play him. He was turning pucks over and was complicating the game, guessing sometimes when he didn't have the puck. But he has really figured out what he is capable of and how to play well at this level.
"Not only that, but he has really helped in the transition game, putting pucks right on our guys sticks so we can go."

NOTES AND QUOTES

* I put this on Twitter shortly after Austin's victory on Monday, but this stat still amazes me, so I'm throwing it out there again: The Bruins lost six of their top seven scorers from last season, a total of 133 goals and 193 assists -- 326 points. THREE HUNDRED TWENTY-SIX POINTS! That is an incredible amount, even in a 60-game season (5.38 per game), yet they won a second consecutive regular season division title and beat their top rival in the postseason division finals.

"Last year we had a lot of guys who could score (at will)," Reuter said. "This year we've had to just stick to the system and work for everything we've gotten. I think hard work is what's done it for us."

* Austin's bus broke down on their way back from Bismarck late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. I'm told some exhaust fumes started leaking into the bus and a number of players/coaches became ill, including goalie Nick Lehr, who shrugged it off and played one of his best games of the season against Bismarck on Monday (the 2-1 Game 5 victory) to lift the Bruins into the Robertson Cup.

* The Bruins seem in favor of the changes made to the Robertson Cup format this season. For the past decade or so, the four divisional playoff winners have met on neutral ice and played a round-robin format for the first three days, with the top two teams moving on to the national championship game on the fourth day.

Last year, national champion Amarillo allowed itself to be blown out on the last day of round-robin play, losing 7-0 to Wenatchee. That put Wenatchee into the national title game against Amarillo and knocked out Jamestown, a team that Amarillo squeaked by, 2-1, on the opening day of pool play.

Amarillo then steamrolled Wenatchee 5-0 in the title game, a day after losing to it by seven goals. This video pretty much sums up why there was so much anger throughout the NAHL and among junior hockey fans. The second goal of the game is irritating, the third is embarrasing for Amarillo. But, it's in the past.

The league reacted by changing the format for the Cup to three best 2-out-of-3 series -- a pair of semifinal series and one championship series.

"I like it. You can't just have a fluky game and knock someone out," Tok said. "You have to beat them twice. Usually if you beat someone twice, you're the better team." (Wild fans would probably disagree with you after Games 1 and 5, coach :) ).

* * * * *

All right, that should be enough to lead you up to game time. I'll have game updates on Twitter and a story up on PostBulletin.com/Sports shortly after the game.

April 20, 2014

Junior Hockey | Bismarck turns tables on Austin in Game 2

Posted by: Feldman

The Austin Bruins have played 14 periods in their past three games. They're a tired bunch.

They're also ticked off, angry, annoyed, whatever word you choose.

At least that's the sense I got after their 2-1 overtime loss to rival Bismarck in Game 2 of the NAHL Central Division finals on Saturday at Riverside Arena.

Reading between the lines a bit when talking with coach Chris Tok after the game, and watching the players' body language, it didn't seem to me like heads were hanging. Though they may be a bit fatigued from so much extra hockey, it felt to me Saturday like they'd have stepped right back on the ice and played Game 3 if they could've.

The series is tied 1-1 and down to a best 2 out of 3 now, with Games 4 and 5 set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Bismarck. 

GAME 2 COVERAGE

Post-Bulletin

Bismarck Tribune

KAAL-TV

Austin knows it has to win at least one game up in Bismarck in order to play another game in its home barn this season. Maybe I misread it, but it sure felt to me like the players and coaches were more ticked off than hurt/sad after controlling most of Saturday's game before losing 2-1 on Stanislav Dzakhov's goal 7:11 into OT.

Austin had just killed a 5-minute major that Alex Pettersson was called for after cross-checking a Bobcats player into the boards right near the penalty boxes. Pettersson was ejected and will be suspended for Game 3, which further thins out the Bruins' group of forwards, especially if Guillaume Leclerc is unable to return this week from a family emergency in France.

The Bruins actually had more/better chances while killing the major than Bismarck did. In fact, at one point, Austin maintained possession in the Bobcats zone for close to 40 seconds while skating 4 on 5. If the Bruins can bottle that type of energy and effort for 60 minutes, they'll be in good shape.

They went up 1-0 on Jay Dickman's 30th goal of the season, less than 5 minutes into the game. And though the Bruins continued to play well for long stretches, they were unable to get another one past Cats goalie Aaron Nelson.

Nelson, an MSU Mankato recruit, was on his game Saturday, a night after playing poorly and allowing five goals in a Game 1 loss. He's the X-factor in this series. It doesn't seem to matter how well the Bruins play if Nelson is on his game. He's tough to beat when he's at his best. The same can be said for Bruins goalie Nick Lehr. I don't think we've seen his best game yet in the postseason, but I won't be surprised if we see it next weekend.

By the way, Nelson played in front of his future college coach on Saturday. MSU Mankato coach Mike Hastings was in the house to watch two of his recruits go head to head; Nelson for the Bobcats and forward Casey Jerry for the Bruins. (Former Bruins goalie Jason Pawloski is also a MSU recruit)

Back to Saturday's game.

The Bruins were sharp defensively and for a while it felt like their 1-0 lead might hold up. But as the third period wore on, it started to feel like the Cats would make a late charge. They tied the score 1-1 halfway through the third period on a power play goal by Huba Sekesi, then killed a late third-period penalty to force OT.

After Dzakhov's winning goal, Bismarck clearly realized how important this victory was. It didn't want to go home down 2-0 to a Bruins team that, quite frankly, had outplayed it for close to 59 minutes on Friday and for a majority of the 67 minutes on Saturday.

The Cats came flying off the bench to celebrate with Dzakhov, who has a knack for scoring in big games. It felt more like a series-winning celebration than a game-winning celebration. Part of it, I think, was Bismarck's knowledge that every game it plays against Austin is a hard-nosed, physically demanding game. It would've been physically and emotionally deflating to the Cats to battle for more than 60 minutes two nights in a row and have nothing to show for it. 

Instead, the Bobcats left Austin having stolen home-ice advantage, just as they did a year ago in the division finals.

This is a different Austin team, though. It's not as individually talented as last year's Bruins team (that team was loaded with D-1 bound scorers like Brandon Wahlin, AJ Reid, CJ Smith and John Simonson) but that's OK. It's not a bad thing at all. This team knows it can't score at will, it has to be responsible in its own end first. It's built a lot like Bismarck -- it's gritty, it's blue-collar, players aren't afraid to put their bodies on the line. The Bruins play a lot of close games, so they don't get rattled in tight spots. All six of their postseason games have been decided by two goals or less, three of them in OT. They've played 66 games this season; 41 of them have been decided by two goals or less.

It'll be a difficult task for Austin to go to Bismarck and sweep two from the Bobcats. It's not impossible, though; Austin did it three weeks ago, when it had to win twice to clinch the regular season division title.

The stakes are higher this time and we'll find out exactly what both teams are made of in five days.

My gut feeling is the Bruins haven't played their last home game of the season, and they'll return to Riverside a week from tomorrow, Monday, April 28, for a Game 5 against Bismarck.

 

April 19, 2014

Junior Hockey | Bruins rally to win Game 1

Posted by: Feldman

It looks like the Bismarck Bobcats and Austin Bruins got the memo from the NHL: Make sure Game 1 of your playoff series is entertaining and goes to overtime.

Austin's 5-4 OT victory on Friday in Game 1 of the North American Hockey League Central Division Finals series wasn't always entertaining for the coaches, but it was for the fans. 

Two of the top 4-5 goalies in the league, two teams that played good defense in their last three playoff games and two teams that are generally responsible in their defensive zone first. Naturally, they're going to combine for seven first-period goals.

Austin was not good for the first six minutes of the game and it fell behind 3-0. It was similar to Game 1 of the Minot series, except the Bruins were at least scoring in that game. It's as poor a stretch as I've seen this team have. Luckily, head coach Chris Tok called his timeout 5:50 into the game and that was the kick in the rear end the Bs needed. They scored twice in the next 2:20 to pull within 3-2 and make it a different game. 

It was 4-3 Bismarck by the end of the first, and it stayed that way until Niko Hildenbrand tied the score :39 into the third period.

That set the stage for Sam Kauppila -- in his first game back after a three-week injury absence -- to score the game winner on a backhand shot in OT. (For the record, Tok said they had someone ready to run to the grocery store for bananas and oranges for the players, had the game gone to a second OT. They did that last week in a 3-OT win at Minot).

Game 2 is at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at Riverside Arena. 

Game 1 coverage:

Post-Bulletin

Bismarck Tribune

KXMB-TV (Bismarck)

KAAL-TV

Game notes and quotes:

* Austin's second-leading scorer, F Guillaume Leclerc, did not play because of a family emergency. He flew back to his home in Franois, France, on Friday. No timetable is known for his return. Thoughts and prayers out to him and his family.

* Bismarck's leading scorer, D Nate Repensky, also didn't play. He's out for the season with a broken leg. 

* Bruins F Jay Dickman was the only player on either team with more than one point. He had two assists.

* Bruins forwards Kauppila and Brian Bachnak tied for a game-high with six shots on goal.

* Austin controlled overtime, outshooting Bismarck 7-1. The Bobcats buzzed on their first two shifts, but Lehr squared up to Stanislav Dzakhov and made a routine save on a hard wrist shot on the first shift of OT, the only shot of the period for the Cats.

* No one in Bismarck's lineup had more than three shots on goal.

* The Bobcats players and coaches were visibly upset and frustrated that Dzakhov wasn't awarded a penalty shot in the second period when he was hauled down on a breakaway. Instead, Bruins defenseman Lucas Kohls was given a two-minute minor for tripping and the Bruins killed the power play. Austin goalie Nick Lehr also made a nice pad save on another breakaway by Dzakhov in the second.

* Kauppila hit a pipe on an odd-man rush just seconds before scoring the winner. The goal judge actually flipped the red light on briefly and the crowd at Riverside Arena reacted to that, thinking a goal had been scored.

QUOTES, QUOTES, QUOTES...

Bruins F Trey Dodd:

* On the OT game-winning goal: "Just needed a shot on net, that's all it took. Have to have bodies in front. I couldn't see the play happen."

* On facing an early 3-0 deficit: "That slow start definitely hurt us. The timeout coach called got our heads back into the game. We needed it, for sure. We came out, got two goals right away and got right back into the game."

* What does rallying mean to both teams: "It's going to give us the momentum going into Game 2. Have to follow it up and not let them do it tomorrow."

* What his line (with Easton Viitala & Alex Pettersson) does well: "We try to get bodies to the net. That's part of our job, to make sure the other team doesn't have time with the puck ... get into corners, get the puck out, get shots on net."

* On Nick Lehr's play after the Bobcats' 3-0 start: "He took an earful, but he got himself back into it. That's what makes him the goalie he is and that's why he is where he is today."

* On possibly going up 2-0: "It'd be huge. I wouldn't say we'd relax at all, but it'd give us the feeling that we can do anything."

* Thoughts on tomorrow's game: "The biggest thing to our game tonight was having fun. We have to carry that over to tomorrow, have fun and not be satisfied (with this win)."

Bruins F Sam Kauppila:

* Thoughts on being back in a game after a three-week injury layoff: "A little tired, but fought through it. Boys were supportive. It's tough to watch the team play and not be out there, but I'm glad we could get it done tonight."

* Could you see where you were shooting on the game-winning goal?: "It was just kind of a reaction, just kind of a blind shot."

* What was it like when down 3-0: "We kept it positive. We knew we could battle back and we did."

* Did you send a message to Bismarck that you guys won't go away?: "The first game is huge, it sets the tempo for the whole series and we felt like we did that tonight."

* On possibly going up 2-0: "That would be huge. That's our goal. Rest up tonight, be ready tomorrow."

Bruins head coach Chris Tok:

* What did you say when you took timeout 5:50 into the game: "That this is a series, it's not a game. We have to play right now. We talk about it all the time; what's important right now? We can't change the first five minutes of that period, so let's start playing hockey and see what happens. Fortunately we got a goal right after it, but basically we just started skating."

* The job G Nick Lehr did after getting down 3-0: "I'd say I had the trigger ready to pull here because of the way the last series started (an 8-6 loss to Minot in Game 1 of the division semis). We took a different approach to him one-on-one and this time he snapped out of it.
"That's what he has to be able to do. Against Minot he wasn't able to do it, tonight he did it in a big way. He made some big saves, but more than that, he didn't give up rebounds. Any time they got some pressure, he kept the puck. That's big for us. It stops their momentum, allows us to change. That was just as big as the saves he made."

* How nice was it to have Kauppila back in: "It's great to have his energy back. I don't think he played the greatest game for what he's capable of doing, but he did have fresh legs and a lot of energy. He had a smile on his face all night. Even when things weren't going well tonight, he still had energy.
"He was the one guy I could see on his face, he kind of had this wry smile the entire game."

* How big is it to win Game 1 in a series vs a rival: "It's really crucial. They were playing a short bench. They weren't rolling all their guys. They got that 3-0 lead and had a lot of positive vibes going. You could see it in how they were skating and carrying themselves. For us to take this one, basically steal it away from them, it's really gonna hit them.
"We have to come out tomorrow night right out of the gate and play well. They're not going to quit. Bismarck never quits, but this definitely was a good body blow and makes them breathe a little harder."

AROUND THE NAHL

* South division runner-up Topeka edged division champ Amarillo 3-2 in Game 1 of their division finals series. 

* In Game 1 of the North Division finals, Port Huron and Michigan made a run at breaking the 6-day-old record for longest game played in NAHL history. Austin and Minot went 116 minutes, 57 seconds last Saturday. On Friday, Michigan's Colin Larkin scored 5:37 into the third OT for a 1-0 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

* In Game 1 of the Midwest Division Finals, Wenatchee (Wash.) shut out Fairbanks 4-0. Wenatchee had won 29 games all season, while Fairbanks led the NAHL with 91 points. Wenatchee held the Ice Dogs scoreless on seven power-play attempts.

* With the new setup of the Robertson Cup playoffs, Bruins fans should be rooting for Wenatchee. If Austin and Wenatchee both win their division finals, the Bruins would get a best-of-3 home series in the national semis. If all the high seeds win their division finals series, Austin would go to Amarillo for a best-of-3 national semifinal series.