Posted by: Feldman
We're just more than 3 hours from faceoff of Game 1 of the North American Hockey League Central Division Finals, the No. 1-seeded Austin Bruins (43-20-1) vs. the No. 3 Bismarck Bobcats (34-24-5).
First, some links to read if you want to kill the time between now and puck drop:
* My story from Thursday's P-B on Bruins D/F Lucas Kohls, the team's "Mr. Versatility"
* My story from Thursday's P-B on the Bruins needing to bounce back quickly, physically and mentally, from a tough series against Minot.
* A blog post from late last night on how the Bruins won the longest game in NAHL history last weekend.
* Feature story on Bismarck's Evan Giesler, who scored six goals in the Bobcats' three-game sweep of Aberdeen in the division semifinals.
* Bismarck Tribune story on the Bruins-Bobcats rivalry, with some good quotes from Bruins coach Chris Tok.
* Bismarck Tribune feature on Bobcats defenseman Ryan Callahan, who is playing well after recovering from a broken back.
* If you're interested in following the series from a Bobcats' perspective, I strongly recommend following Bismarck Tribune sports editor Lou Babiarz on Twitter (@LouBabiarz). I've known Lou for about 12 years; he blankets the Bobcats and has some good insight on their play as a team and their individuals.
* Short preview capsules of each of the four NAHL division finals series, all beginning tonight.
How often do we look at a series and think a top seed is an underdog? I won't go as far as to call the Bruins an underdog in this series, but it's about as close as you'll come.
These teams split 10 games during the regular season, with Austin winning 3 out of 4 over the final two weekends against Bismarck to clinch the regular season division title.
Bismarck is the only team that has come to Riverside Arena this season and pushed the Bruins around. The Bruins are an incredible 26-4-0 at home this season (actually 24-4-0 at Riverside, as two of the games listed as "home" occurred at the season-opening NAHL Showcase in Blaine). Still, 24-4-0 on home ice is darn impressive.
Consider this, though: Bismarck handed Austin three of those four losses at Riverside. The Bobcats were the only team to sweep a weekend series in Austin, winning 4-2 on Jan. 31 and 7-0 on Feb. 1.
That's not to say Austin won't win this weekend, but it is to say that Bismarck has confidence and knows it can win here.
All that said, let's break down the Central Division Finals.
Game 1: Tonight, 7:05 p.m., at Austin
Game 2: Saturday, 7:05 p.m., at Austin
Game 3: Friday, April 25, 8 p.m., at Bismarck
x-Game 4: Saturday, April 26, 8 p.m., at Bismarck
x-Game 5: Monday, April 28, 7:05 p.m., at Austin
x -- if necessary
Records: Austin 43-20-1, Bismarck 34-24-5
Season series: Bismarck, 5-4-1
Goals for: Bruins 203, Bobcats 190
Goals against: Bruins 158, Bobcats 160
Power-play goals: Bruins 34, Bobcats 46
Shorthanded goals: Bruins 12, Bobcats 9
Penalty minutes: Bruins 1227, Bobcats 1199
SCOUTING THE BOBCATS
* G Aaron Nelson: The veteran goalie is among the best in the NAHL and has been outstanding against Austin throughout his career. The MSU Mankato recruit is 32-18-3 this season, including a 5-3-0 mark against the Bruins, with a 1.50 goals-against average in those games. He has played in an incredible 20 career playoff games, backstopping the 'Cats to the Robertson Cup each of the past two seasons.
* F Stanislav Dzakhov: The speedy forward had just two points (both assists) in the Bobcats' division semifinal series victory against Aberdeen, but he was the team's second-leading scorer in the regular season (25-23--48) and the only Bobcat to top 20 goals. The Moscow, Russia, native is committed to Niagara University. He played in only six of the 10 games against Austin this season, putting up five points (three goals).
* F Evan Giesler: The 'Cats third-leading scorer during the regular season (16-26--42) picked up the slack against Aberdeen where some of the team's other top players struggled to score. Giesler scored six goals and added one assist, for seven points in three games against the Wings. He is the only Bobcat to play in all 63 of their games this season. He had a 3-3--6 line in 10 games vs. Austin this season. His line, with fellow 15-goal scorers Huba Sekesi and Cullen Willox, will be one to watch in the series.
Watch out for...
* F Zach Yon: The 2014 Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist and University of North Dakota commit joined the Bobcats after his high school season in Roseau ended. He had three assists in six regular-season games, then scored three goals in three games during the division semifinal series against Aberdeen. He had 59 points in 22 games at Roseau. He is tendered with Bismarck for next season, but it would be surprising if he's not playing in the USHL.
* F Filip Starzynski: The Warsaw, Poland, native is an Alabama-Huntsville commit. He had 37 points in just 43 regular season games this year and had one goal in the Bobcats' first-round playoff series victory. At 5-10, 185, he can be a dynamic playmaker and goal-scorer. With the depth the 'Cats have, Starzynski might be a greater threat as a setup man in this series, and someone the Bruins will have to keep an eye on at all times when Bismarck is on a power play. Austin has held him in check well this season, though, allowing him just one assist in eight games.
This one is huge for both teams. Bismarck's leading scorer in the regular season, Yale-bound defenseman Nate Repensky (12-38--50), suffered a season-ending leg injury during the Bobcats game against the Bruins in the regular season finale. Repensky was attempting to pull a Bruins player away from a scrum when he fell backward, pulling the Bruin down on top of him. At the same time, he felt his right leg snap. The good news is that the recovery time for Repensky isn't like an ACL tear; he expects to be able to train and skate this summer, in as little as 7-8 weeks, and he's still on track to start his college career at Yale in the fall. Repensky's loss thins out the Bobcats defensive corps, though. They can't afford another injury on the blue line, with just six healthy d-men on the roster.
NAHL rosters, by their nature, turn over quite a bit from year to year, but the Bobcats are always built for the postseason. Judging by their relatively simple sweep of Aberdeen in the opening round -- the Cats outscored the Wings 14-3 over three games -- Bismarck is again primed for a postseason run. In other words, Bismarck has the experience of being in the division finals and knowing how to win at this time of year. And it just seems like, no matter the situation, when Bismarck sets foot in Riverside Arena, everyone -- players, coaches, the 1,200-plus in the bleachers -- tighten up a bit and the tension level rises. You can bet coach Layne Sedevie will remind his players of that before they step on the ice tonight.
SCOUTING THE BRUINS
* F Jay Dickman: The 6-6, 225-pound Bemidji State recruit finished the season as the second-leading scorer in the entire NAHL (28-36--64). He is a load, as his size indicates, and is as tough as anyone in the league to bump off the puck. He has improved his speed, footwork, hands and strength since last season and has become a complete player. He skates well for a big man, too, and limiting his chances will be a tough task for the 'Cats defensive corps, which is minus its best player, Repensky.
* G Nick Lehr: The University of Minnesota recruit has improved so much skill-wise during his three years as a Bruin. He also has grown mentally. His mental toughness is outstanding, as shown in the division semifinals. He had his worst night as a Bruin in the series opener, allowing seven goals in an 8-6 loss to Minot. He wasn't sharp and he knew it. BUT, Lehr shook it off and was tremendous over the final three games, allowing a total of five goals over the final 11-plus periods. He led the NAHL in wins (35) this season, was fifth in goals-against average (1.84) and save percentage (.932).
* D Josh Bretner: The veteran d-man earned the "C" on his sweater this season. He's the team's third-leading scorer in the regular season (7-33--40) and had two assists and was a plus-4 in the opening-round series win against Minot. He plays in every situation and runs the point effectively on the power play. Bretner has a good shot, too, and he's not afraid to let it fly. He is one of two Bruins, along with F/D Lucas Kohls, to play in all 64 games this year.
* F Guillaume Leclerc: The diminutive speedster from Franois, France, is a game-changer when he has time and space. He was second on the team in scoring (21-25--46) during the regular season, despite missing six games. He had a goal and an assist in the playoff opening series against Minot. Leclerc, a UMass-Lowell recruit, is just 18. He had five power-play goals and eight game-winning goals this year. He has a goal and four assists in eight games against Bismarck this year.
Watch out for...
* F Drew Anderson: The Rochester Century grad has made a living over the past two years by scoring the gritty goals in front of the net. He has 10 goals and 21 assists in 62 games this season. This series could come down to the goalies. Both Austin's Lehr and Bismarck's Nelson are stingy. They'll make the first save a vast majority of the time, so it's likely to come down to who can get the greasy goals. Anderson has excelled at that. He nearly had the game-winner midway through the 3rd OT against Minot last week, only to be robbed by Tauros goalie Brandon Wildung (sorry, Drew, I said I wouldn't mention it again). If he gets a chance against the 'Cats, Anderson won't miss.
* F Luke Dietsch: Perhaps no player on either team is as hot as Dietsch right now, with the possible exception of Bismarck's Evan Giesler. Dietsch was one of Austin's most consistent forwards in the regular season, putting up a 16-19--35 line in 58 games. In the four-game series against Minot in the division semifinals, Dietsch had four goals and seven points. If he can replicate that effort against Bismarck, that's a huge plus for the Bruins.
For the Bruins, forward Sam Kauppila has been among their biggest injury concerns in recent weeks. An upper-body injury has sidelined the 6-1, 170-pounder, who doesn't turn 18 for another month. He has 16 points in 42 games this season, but has played just once since Feb. 21. There was thought that he might return last weekend at Minot, but he was kept out of the lineup with his upper-body injury. He has practiced the past couple weeks, though. As of Tuesday, he was still in an orange non-contact practice jersey. His return to the lineup would boost a forward corps that has other key players such as Niko Hildenbrand, Scott Nelson and Joe Schuldt battling injuries, too.
The Bruins know how to win. They're back-to-back regular season division champions. And even though they've had fits with Bismarck in the playoffs the past two years, this is a different group. Most of these guys weren't around for last year's playoff series. And, as head coach Chris Tok said, this team has been through a four-game playoff series against Bismarck. They had the division title and home-ice advantage hanging in the balance during the final two weeks of the regular season, when Austin won three of four games against the Bobcats -- including a two-game sweep on the last weekend of the season at Bismarck -- to clinch the regular season title. If Austin can play the same game it played that weekend, it will make its first Robertson Cup appearance.
Bismarck enters this series with a lot of confidence after a dominant three-game sweep of Aberdeen, while Austin really only had a couple of practices to recover from that marathon Game 4 at Minot. Still, it's the playoffs and Bismarck is in the opposing locker room at Riverside. If that's not enough to get the Bruins' adrenaline flowing, nothing will be. Tok and the Bruins assistants won't have to say much in their pre-game speech. This won't be easy, but I think the Bruins are finally ready to take the next step. They'll need lots of ice packs and rest in between games, but it's time they elevate their game against Bismarck during the playoffs. Austin worked all season for home-ice advantage throughout the first two rounds of the postseason, and the Bruins will need it.
The pick: Austin in 5 games.