AUSTIN -- Nine months ago 21 players reported to Riverside Arena for the first practice of a new season.
Most of the faces were new to the Austin Bruins, with only five players back from a trip three and a half months earlier to the Robertson Cup Finals.
To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from this team when it came together the day after Labor Day. It was the first time since the Bruins inaugural year where they had so many new players. My expectations weren't sky high, like the previous two years, though I should've known better.
The Bs jumped out of the gate with a fury, blitzing their way to wins in their first four games and the franchise's second NAHL Showcase championship.
Then reality hit.
Austin went 6-8-6 over its next 20 games. The Bs looked disjointed and were struggling to find chemistry.
In hindsight, the hot start at the Showcase followed by an ugly (by Bruins standards) two-month stretch was just what the team needed, though it didn't seem like it at the time. Lines were juggled not just from game to game, but from shift to shift.
By my count, the team used six affiliate players (counting current full-timer Riese Zmolek) at various times in order to put a full lineup on the ice. They've had 45 different players on the roster at one point or another, fielding nearly two full squads throughout the course of the season. That's a lot of coming and going, but that's how it works with the Bruins. If you're not the right fit for the team, you won't be around long. Some players, such as goalie Zach Driscoll and forward Trey Dodd, were called up to the USHL.
Under coaches Chris Tok, Jamie Huffman and Elliott Hogue, the Bruins have thrived by putting the right players into the right spots in their systems. Sometimes it's difficult to convince a guy who's been a scorer all his life that his best bet to win at the NAHL level -- and move on to play college hockey -- is to be a third-line checking guy. Sometimes it's difficult to get a guy to shoot more, believe that he can be an effective scorer in the NA.
Austin's coaches and team captains excel at getting guys to buy into their roles. That's what happened over the course of this season. It just took a little longer than it usually does.
Since the calendar flipped to 2015 there haven't been many better teams in the league, certainly not in the Central Division. The Bruins are 27-5-3
since a 4-1 loss on their home ice to Coulee Region on New Year's Eve.
I've used that stat -- the Bs' record since Jan. 1
-- a lot in the past couple months. I've probably overused it, but I do so because I think it's the most concise way to sum up what this team has accomplished, just how dramatic its turnaround has been.
The Bruins have gone from a team that looked like it would be going on the road in the first round of the playoffs to a team that was one regular season win away from having home ice in the national semifinals. That's how tight this league is. Had Austin gone 5-6 in shootouts instead of 3-8, they're home this weekend for the Robertson Cup semifinals instead of being 900 miles south.
But let's be honest: If I had suggested to Tok back in late November that his team -- THIS team -- would be back in the national semis, he'd have probably locked me out of Riverside Arena. The Bruins are not complaining about where they are. They're not playing their best hockey of the season, but they're lightyears from being that team that won just six times in a 20-game stretch.
It's a testament to this group and its captains -- Brian Bachnak, Jake Arroyo and Cory Dunn -- that they're in Dallas this weekend to face the South Division champion Lone Star Brahmas in the Robby Cup semis.
It's as challenging of a regular season as the Bs have faced, on and off the ice, yet they're two wins away from playing for a national championship.
It won't be easy to get back to the Finals, but nothing has been easy for this group. It isn't loaded with natural scorers, like past teams that have had guys like Brandon Wahlin, CJ Smith, Jay Dickman, John Simonson, Guillaume Leclerc, etc.
These Bruins have to earn their success the hard way, with ice packs and Ace bandages. If they're to advance to the Robertson Cup Finals, they'll have to do it the same way.
The Brahmas are a tough team to play against, with eight Division I commits on their roster, including NAHL MVP Sebastian Vidmar
, who led the league with 35 goals and 80 points in the regular season. The 21-year-old is a load, too, at 6-2
, 190 pounds.
The Brahmas second-leading scorer, Swedish forward Ludvig Larsson, a Merrimack College commit, also had more points in the regular season (21-34--55) than Austin's leading scorer Trevor Boyd (26-24--50). But the Brahmas haven't been rolling past everyone. Five of their six playoff wins have come by one goal, the other by two goals, with an empty-netter at the end.
Last I talked to the Bruins coaches, they hadn't watched much video of the Brahmas yet, though I'm sure they've dissected it over and over again by now. It's tough to imagine the Brahmas bringing more speed and quickness than Minot did in the division finals. The Minotauros were so quick and got into their transition game so fast that the Bruins defensemen were often backing off faster than they needed to.
The Bs are a better team when their defensemen can press the offensive play and their forwards can grind on the forecheck (I suppose that's a silly statement; who isn't a better team when they can do those things?). The point is, though, that's the game Austin is built to play. It doesn't always have to be pretty to be effective.
I'll stop rambling now and take a glance at the series:
First, a couple of links to stories:
• A notebook with a few items
, including a brief preview of the Bruins-Brahmas series, a note on former Rochester Century goalie Brock Kautz, as well as a few paragraphs on the four players with local ties taken in this week's USHL Phase I and Phase II Drafts.
• I have to put this in here, too: KIMT-TV's post-game coverage of the Bruins' Game 5 victory against Minot on Monday. KIMT's Ryan Shaver
was sitting next to me throughout the game. When Austin's Brian Bachnak
recorded assists on all three Bruins' goals in the second period of that game, Shaver said "I know three goals is a hat trick, what's three assists?" A quick Google search turned up an answer: "some people call it a 'Playmaker'" Google said, but no one sitting around us had ever heard that term used before. So we came up with a Bruins-specific term for three assists in a period: A Bach-Trick. I thought Ryan was joking when he said he was going to use the line on air, but he went with it and made it sound legit (plus he got me in the background of a fan-cheering shot 27 seconds in): Here's the video
ROBERTSON CUP SEMIFINALS
AUSTIN at LONE STAR
Best 2 out of 3
At North Richland Hills, Texas
: Austin at Lone Star, 5:30 pm
Records: Austin 38-11-11 reg. season, 44-13-11 overall; Lone Star 40-12-8 reg. season, 46-13-8 overall.
Path to the Robby Cup semis: AUSTIN -- defeated Aberdeen 3-0 in Central Division semifinals, defeated Minot 3-2 in Central Division finals; LONE STAR -- defeated Wenatchee 3-0 in South Division semifinals, defeated Topeka 3-1 in South Division finals.
Head coaches: AUSTIN -- Chris Tok (5th season, 201-106-29); LONE STAR -- Dan Wildfong (2nd season, 69-46-12)
Bruins leading scorers (reg. season/overall): F Trevor Boyd (26-24--50/28-31--59); F Alex Pettersson (11-32--43/13-38--51); F Nico Sturm (11-30--41/17-34--51); F Luke Dietsch (9-28--37/13-31--44); F Tony Uglem (22-17--39/23-19--42); D Ian Scheid (12-23--35/14-26--40).
Bruins goalies (reg. season/playoffs): Jake Kielly (20-5-6, 2.12 GAA, .906 save pct./3-2, 2.17, .907); Evan Smith (12-1-2, 1.73, .923/3-0, 3.00, .889).
Brahmas leading scorers (reg. season/overall): F Sebastian Vidmar (35-45--80/37-50--87); F Ludvig Larsson (21-34--55/23-36--59); F Oskar Andren (18-29--47/18-33--51); F A.J. Vanderbeck (21-14--35/22-16--38); D Alexey Solovyev (10-24--34/10-24--34).
Brahmas goalies (reg. season/playoffs): T.J. Black (21-8-4, 1.99 GAA, .915 save pct./1-0, 3.76, .810); Jake Kupsky (19-4-4, 2.16, .911/5-1, 1.67, .936).
TALE OF THE TAPE
Records (reg. season/playoffs): Austin 38-11-11, 6-2-0 (44-13-11 overall); Lone Star 40-12-8, 6-1-0 (46-13-8 overall).
Head-to-head: Have not met this season.
Offense: Austin 243 goals in 68 games (3.57/game); Lone Star 227 in 67 games (3.39/game)
Defense: Austin 156 goals allowed in 68 games (2.29/game); Lone Star 146 in 67 games (2.18/game)
Power play (NAHL rank): Austin -- reg. season 38-268 (14.18 pct., 19th in NAHL); postseason 8-21 (38.1 pct., 2nd in NAHL); total 46-289 (15.9 pct.). Lone Star -- reg. season 55-281 (19.57 pct., 7th); postseason 2-21 (9.52 pct., 12th in NAHL); total 57-302 (18.9 pct.).
Penalty kill (NAHL rank): Austin -- reg. season 248-275 (90.18 pct., 1st in NAHL); playoffs 28-33 (84.85 pct., 8th in NAHL); total 276-308 (89.6 pct.). Lone Star -- reg. season 235-267 (88.01 pct., 2nd in NAHL); playoffs 23-26 (88.46, 4th in NAHL); total 258-293 (88.1 pct.).
Goaltending (save pct.): Austin -- reg. season .907, playoffs .899, overall .906; Lone Star -- reg. season .910; playoffs .918; overall .911.
While this year's Bruins team plays a different style than last year's, the attitude of the players and coaches feels identical to a year ago at this time. They're happy to be where they are, but not satisfied. And when it comes to two teams who haven't faced each other all season, comparing statistics is OK, but doesn't mean a whole lot, especially since there are no common opponents for these teams after the NAHL Showcase in mid-September (Lone Star played Janesville, Coulee Region and the Minnesota Magicians at the Showcase, but that was almost nine months ago, so throw it out the window).
This is a new spot for the Brahmas. It's a new spot for a majority of the Bruins, too, but not for their coaching staff or their captains. It sounds like the crowd at the Nytex Sports Arena in North Richland Hills, Texas, is somewhat like at Bruins home games, right on top of the opposing bench. That won't bother the Bs, though. They go through that enough in their own division. They went through it last year in this round, too, having to travel to Topeka.
Austin probably hasn't seen a scorer like Vidmar, so they'll have to know where he is at all times. I was trying to find some sort of video on Vidmar, and here's the best I could do: The NAHL Plays of the week from Dec. 22-28
. His play begins at about the 2:34 mark.
I'd be tempted to pick the Brahmas to win the series, but I like the Bruins' attitude right now. They're playing only for each other and their coaches. Their goaltending has to be better than it was against Minot, but Jake Kielly and Evan Smith have shown mental toughness all season.
Like always, Austin won't make it easy, but they'll come out on top.
The call: Austin in 3 (Game 1: Austin 4, Lone Star 3, OT; Game 2: Lone Star 5, Austin 3; Game 3: Austin 5, Lone Star 3)