Posted by: Feldman
Here's a lesson for young hockey players — young athletes in any sport — everywhere: Listen to your coaches. They usually know what they're talking about.
Back in September, Austin Bruins head coach Chris Tok and assistant Jamie Huffman insisted to me that the 2013-14 Bruins would be a good team, even though they turned over more than half of their roster from last season's division title team. They weren't going to blow anyone out, they weren't going to be able to flip a switch and blow away an opponent like last year's team could. But, the coaches said, there is talent here. It won't be easy, but they'll be a good team by the end of the season.
I wasn't sure. Not because I didn't believe the Bruins could do it; I figured, with the teams that Bismarck and Aberdeen had constructed, and the fact that all five teams in the Central seem to play one another tough, it would be difficult for Austin to earn enough points in the first half of the season (while players were still learning roles and what is expected of them) to be in position for another division title in March.
Guess what? It's the end of the regular season. It wasn't easy. The Bruins have talent. They've become a very good team. And they're the NAHL Central Division champions for a second consecutive season.
Austin is also playing as well as it has all season. I talked to two coaches and four players earlier this week before a practice and you could sense something different in them after sweeping two games at Bismarck last weekend.
Bismarck has been a pain in the backside for this Bruins team over the past couple years. It hasn't seemed to matter how well either team is playing or where they're playing, the Bobcats flat-out give the Bruins fits.
But something clicked last weekend — the Bruins coaches urged the players to go out and take the division title, don't count on Aberdeen losing at Wenatchee and handing the Bs the title (Aberdeen swept at Wenatchee, so, yes, the Bruins certainly earned it).
Tok referred to some of the great battles Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders had in the 1980s. The Islanders swept the Oilers in 1983 to win their fourth consecutive Cup. The following year, the Oilers had learned their lesson. They turned things around and took it to the Islanders, winning the Cup in five games.
No one is predicting the Bruins will take it to the Bobcats if the teams meet in the playoffs this year — Austin isn't looking past a pesky Minot team in the first round, while Bismarck is the No. 3 seed and will have its hands more than full against No. 2 Aberdeen — but the message is clear from the coaching staff: This Bruins team needs to not worry about anything other than itself. It needs to play its game, pay the price physically and take the postseason division championship.
I casually asked a couple of veteran players, off the record, about their plans for next season. They weren't having any of that question. It's all about now, about beating Minot and advancing in the postseason.
"The Islanders beat the Oilers the first time they met," Tok said. "The next time, after the ('84 finals), Gretzky looked around the Oilers locker room and every guy had two or three ice bags on. They took it. They earned it. You could take a picture of that locker room and see the guys, they'd earned it, just by the dedication and the pain that they've suffered to win.
"Our guys understand that. We told them after the game last Saturday, there are no more rookies in here. You've been here, you've played a 60-game schedule. We all understand, the guy next to you, he's not a rookie. We're all guys who understand what it takes to win and that's what we're going to do."
LOTS OF CLOSE ONES
Here's a stat that says a lot about this Bruins team: It has played in 35 games — more than half of its 60-game schedule — decided by one or two goals. They are 23-11-1 in those games (and 40-19-1 overall).
In other words, the Bs don't get rattled if the game is tight late in the third period.
"We had a lot of those close games, we're used to it, we know what we need to do in those situations," second-year Bruins defenseman Jake Arroyo said. "We know, every period counts, every shift counts in the playoffs, so it's good that we know how to play in those close situations."
Tok has seen this team develop patience and poise as the season has gone on. And the Bruins have battled so many injuries, that you won't see anyone look around and wonder what the heck they're supposed to do if they're not on the ice with their usual linemates or defensive partner. Actually, with all the injuries this team has had, there's really no such thing as "usual linemates or defensive partners."
"Our guys, we don't panic," Tok said. "We believe in what we have to do on the ice. We talk about the process to get where we want to go. A great example was Friday night in Bismarck. We played a great first period, outshot them 15-5 and we're down 1-0. We walked in the (locker) room, talked about one adjustment — not really even an adjustment, just a reminder — sure enough, came out in the second, got more pucks on the net and took the lead.
"That's the way it is. It was like 'just stick to it here, let's get it done,' and they did."
HIGH PRAISE FOR FOLIN
The Bruins coaching staff, players (current and former) and fans were quite thrilled on Monday to see that former Bs defenseman and two-year UMass-Lowell standout Christian Folin had signed a two-year contract with the Minnesota Wild.
To show that Folin enjoyed his time in Austin, he told Wild.com that he always had an idea that he'd like to return to Minnesota to play.
• Here is a story I wrote for Tuesday's paper that includes reaction on Twitter from some of Folin's former Bruins teammates. (Notice that current Bruin Austin Nelson is among them; kinda crazy to think that Folin was a Bruin two years ago today, and today he skated in Chicago with the Wild).
• Here is NAHL.com's story on the Folin signing.
• Here is the Minnesota Wild's "Pondcast" interview with Folin.
I asked coach Tok what qualities pro teams saw in Folin that made them believe he can play at the NHL level. His answer boiled down to one thing: work ethic.
"He's a guy who was always out there trying to improve his game," Tok said. "He wasn't always playing a rebound game with the goalies or something. He was always working on his shot, working on picking up pucks in transition, always working to get better.
"It's the same with (current Bruin) Guillaume Leclerc (who, coincidentally is committed to UMass-Lowell). You watch after practice, he's always by himself working on his individual skills to make himself better.
"I go back to a kid that we coached (in the USHL) who's playing in the NHL, Joe Pavelski. It was the same thing every practice with him: 'coach, can we do this,' or 'coach, can we do this.' It was always 'coach, coach, coach...' when they're asking to do it, as a coach, it's like, yeah, no problem."
NEW FORMAT FOR ROBERTSON CUP
In recent seasons, NAHL teams that won their first two playoff series advanced to the Robertson Cup, the NAHL's equivalent of the Frozen Four.
The four postseason division winners would play three days of round-robin play, then the two teams with the best records would advance to the national championship game on the fourth day of the Cup finals.
This season, the round robin play has been eliminated, as has the neutral-ice setting.
The last four teams remaining in the NAHL playoffs will be re-seeded based on the league's regular season standings (so, if all four regular-season division champs advance to the Robertson Cup playoffs, Austin would be the No. 3 seed.)
The No. 4 seed will play at the No. 1 seed and the No. 3 seed will play at the No. 2 seed, both in best 2-out of-3 series, with all three games (if necessary) being played on the higher seed's home ice.
The same goes for the Robertson Cup finals. The team with the highest seed will play host to a best 2-out of-3 series for the national championship.
Let's take a look at the Austin-Minot first-round matchup:
Minot: Brandon Wildung (14-7-3, 2.44 GAA, .918 save pct.) and Merrick Madsen (10-16-0, 2.75, .904). Neither Wildung, a Mercyhurst commit, or Madsen, who is headed to Harvard, have played in an NAHL playoff game. That lack of playoff experience could be a factor. The Tauros also have one of the worst penalty kills in the league, ranking No. 19 at 81.8 percent.
Austin: Nick Lehr (35-13-1, 1.84, .932) is in his third season with the Bs and his third trip to the postseason. He was 4-2-0 with a 1.90 GAA and a .942 save pct. in last year's playoffs. The Minnesota recruit has been clutch in close games this year and never panics.
Minot: The Tauros beefed up their scoring ability greatly in early February when they traded for Michael Louria, a UMass-Lowell commit who finished 10th in the league in scoring with 52 points. But beyond Louria, no Tauros player averages even a half-point per game. In fact, their second leading scorer is defenseman Jon Lizotte and another blue-liner, Scott Dornbrock, is tied for third on the team. If the Tauros are going to have a chance, they'll have to keep the score low and get some production from their blue line.
Austin: The Bruins have the second-leading scorer in the NAHL on their team and, somehow, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Jay Dickman seems to go about his business quietly. The Bemidji State recruit isn't flashy, but he has a great, hard shot that has produced 28 goals (to go along with his 36 assists, for 64 points) this season. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Guillaume Leclerc, the Bs second-leading scorer (21-25—46 in 54 games), a 5-8, 165-pound waterbug from France. Opposing teams seem to be more preoccupied with knocking him down than stopping him from scoring. Leclerc gets up every time — and he has taken some clean, hard hits this season — and usually makes the opponent pay. Add in guys like Luke Dietsch, Drew Anderson and Niko Hildenbrand ... I could go down the line to every forward on the roster. They all know their roles and embrace them.
Minot: As mentioned, Lizotte and Dornbrock are solid contributors offensively, but the Tauros struggle mightily on the penalty kill. It'll be crucial for them to stay out of the box. The addition of Grand Rapids native Jordan Stejskal in a trade in late January gave the Tauros a bit more grit or "nasty" on the blue line; he has 86 penalty minutes this season, in addition to 11 points. The Tauros' blue-liners will have to find a way to chip in offensively while not doing too much on the offensive end.
Austin: This may be the position group that has improved the most as a whole since the start of the season. Veterans Josh Bretner, Jake Arroyo and Kody Reuter have anchored the group, while newcomers Cory Dunn and Charlie Manley have settled into their roles nicely. The addition of Lucas Kohls — at 6-3, 195 — has given the Bs some more size and physicality on the back-end, too. Kohls moved back to defense when Eli May moved up to a forward spot and it's a switch the coaching staff seems to love.
Austin has earned the No. 1 seed and is playing some of its best hockey of the season. That said, Minot isn't an easy team to play against, especially up there. I think either Wildung or Madsen steals one from them, but they won't steal three. Bruins in 4.