Posted by: Feldman
I know I'm pushing this right up against game time, but, hey better a little early than never, right? Right.
Should we really be surprised that there are five weeks to go in the regular season and the Austin Bruins are starting to play their best hockey? It's been a theme under head coach Chris Tok over the first five years of the Bruins' existence.
After winning two games in extra time at the Midwest Division-leading Minnesota Wilderness last weekend, the Bruins again control their own destiny in their pursuit of a third consecutive NAHL Central Division regular-season championship.They also became the first Central team to wrap up a playoff spot. If the Bs win both games this weekend against Aberdeen (7:05 p.m. tonight, Saturday) at Riverside Arena, and Bismarck loses twice in regulation against the Wilderness, the Bruins will clinch home ice in the first round of the NAHL playoffs.
Perhaps the biggest sign that things have turned around for the Bs is their success in extra-time games as of late. They've won four of their past five games that have gone to OT or a shootout, dating back to Jan. 21. Prior to this stretch, Austin had won just three of 13 extra-time games this season.
Every point is crucial in the standings for teams in a very competitive Central Division. The Bruins have done a nice job of grabbing those extra points over the past month.
Austin (29-10-11, 69 points) has a five-point lead over Minot (29-13-6, 64 points). Minot has 12 games remining, while Austin has just 10. But even if Minot won those two games they have in hand, that still would put them a point back of the Bruins.
The Bruins' coaches won't let the players get caught up in counting points and chasing points. Still too much time left for that. They just need to keep playing the way they're playing. If they do, we'll see a lot of playoff hockey at Riverside again this spring.
Check out just how good Austin has been since the calendar flipped to 2015:
* In their 17 games since the start of January, the Bruins are 12-2-3 overall.
* Eight of those games have gone to OT or a shootout, with Austin winning five.
* Five times in those 17 games, Austin has scored more than five goals.
* In the two regulation losses (both against last-place Brookings), the Bs outshot Brookings by a combined 17 shots on goal.
* Austin has outscored its opponents 66-38 over the past 17 games.
All those things considered, the Bruins can't let up. As you'll note in the next-to-last bullet point, their two regulation losses in 2015 came against Brookings, a team battling to stay out of the Central Division basement, a team that could potentially be the Bruins' first-round playoff opponent.
This weekend, Austin gets the team that Brookings is trying to track down for the final playoff spot from the division, the Aberdeen Wings.
Aberdeen is 23-24-2, and with 48 points is five points up on Brookings for that last playoff spot. That means the Bruins should get a hungry Wings team. If Austin doesn't match Aberdeen's intensity and play with the same kind of urgency, the Bs will have Minot breathing right down their necks.
Some quick notes before we break down this weekend's series:
* Former Bruins goalie Nick Lehr made his college debut on Thursday night for Minnesota in its 5-3 victory against Michigan State. It sounds like Gophers' starter Adam Wilcox will be good to go for tonight's series finale, but Lehr showed he can play at the highest level, settling in after a shaky start.
* Former Bruin A.J. Reid is the fourth-leading scorer for the Air Force Academy Falcons. He has seven goals and 24 points through 35 games for Air Force (13-18-4).
* Goalie Zach Driscoll, who started the season with Bruins before being called up to the USHL, is 6-2-1 for the Omaha Lancers with a 2.79 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage. Driscoll is a St. Cloud State University commit.
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THIS WEEKEND'S SERIES
ABERDEEN WINGS at AUSTIN BRUINS
7:05 p.m. tonight, 7:05 p.m. Saturday, Riverside Arena
Records: Austin 29-10-11 (69 pts., 1st in NAHL Central), Aberdeen 23-24-2 (48 pts., 4th in NAHL Central)
Head coaches: Austin, Chris Tok (5th season, 184-104-30 overall); Aberdeen, Francis Anzalone (1st season, 23-24-2 overall)
Wings top scorers: F Kyle Haak (14-29--43); F Michael Soucier (16-19--35); F Bjorn Sigurdarson (11-10--21); D Tanner Okeson (6-14--20).
Wings goalies: Andrew Shortridge (15-11-1, 2.53 GAA, .915 save pct.); Tanner Elmore (0-0-0, 0.00, .000); Luke Kania (0-0-0, 0.00, .000).
Bruins top scorers: F Trevor Boyd (19-20--39); F Alex Pettersson (7-26--33); F Tony Uglem (18-14--32); F Nico Sturm (10-22--32); F Luke Dietsch (7-23--30); D Ian Scheid (10-14--24); D Cory Dunn (4-20--24).
Bruins goalies: Jake Kielly (17-4-6, 2.21 GAA, .904 save pct.); Evan Smith (6-1-2, 2.02, .923).
TALE OF THE TAPE
Records (points): Austin 29-10-11 (69); Aberdeen 23-24-2 (48)
Head-to-head (points earned): Bruins 3-0-3 (9); Aberdeen 2-3-1 (5)
Offense: Austin 3.32 goals per game; Aberdeen 2.35 gpg
Defense: Austin 2.44 goals allowed per game; Aberdeen 2.80 gapg
Power play (league rank): Austin 14.3 pct. (19th); Aberdeen 16.6 pct. (11th)
Penalty kill (league rank): Austin 89.3 pct. (1st); Aberdeen 84.8 (7th)
Goaltending (save pct.): Austin .904; Aberdeen .906
Keep an eye on the players from each team who participated in the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament earlier this week, Monday and Tuesday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Trevor Boyd, Luke Dietsch, Ian Scheid and Cory Dunn represented the Bruins, while Aberdeen sent forwards Kyle Haak and Bjorn Sigurdarson. That's a lot of travel and play in a short period of time; by the time Saturday's game in Austin has finished, those guys will all have played six games in nine days. ... Aberdeen traded standout goalie Chad Catt to the Soo Eagles two weeks ago (Catt actually played for Team Central at the Top Prospects Tourney this week, as he had been named to the Central team prior to the trade). The Wings look like they'll ride Andrew Shortridge (15-11-1, 2.53 GAA, .915 save pct.) the rest of the way. They have three other goalies on the roster, none who appeared to have played in the NAHL this season. ... Six different players have scored game-winning goals for Austin in the past seven games.
The Bruins haven't lost a home game in regulation since a 3-1 setback to Brookings on Jan. 3, a span of 55 days. The Bruins' coaching staff has this team playing almost exactly how it wants to at this stage of the season. The close race for the division title should help the Bs from becoming complacent. And, as you likely know, if they look complacent one night, coaches Chris Tok and Jamie Huffman will make sure they do not look complacent two nights in a row. Aberdeen has been far better at home (15-8-1) than on the road (8-16-1) this season. Add all that up and it feels like a good weekend for the Bruins and their fans in their home barn. The call: Bruins 5-2, Bruins 5-3.