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420 posts categorized "Hockey"

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.

April 18, 2014

Junior Hockey | Scouting the NAHL Central Division Finals

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.

THE SERIES

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

HEAD-TO-HEAD

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

Key players

* 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.

Injury factor

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.

Intangibles

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

Key players

* 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.

Injury factor

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.

Intangibles

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.

THE PICK

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.

Junior Hockey | How the Austin Bruins ended the longest game in NAHL history

Posted by: Feldman

This is a few days late, but let's put a wrap on the longest game in North American Hockey League history. The Bruins won it last Saturday, when Lucas Kohls scored with 3:03 to go in the third OT to beat Minot 4-3 at Minot and win a NAHL Central Division semifinal series 3-1.

I'll have a post later today breaking down the Central Division finals series against Bismarck, which begins at 7:05 tonight at Riverside Arena, but let's wrap up the Bruins-Minotauros semifinals series first. 

Here is a link to a 38-second video of the winning goal posted on YouTube by Bruins radio play-by-play man John Peterson. The video is a little grainy, but you can see the play develop. (I'm also going to attempt to imbed the video at the bottom of this post, but we've run into issues trying to do that in the past, so I apologize if it doesn't work).

I'm a little late in getting this posted, but I talked to a few Bruins players and coaches earlier this week about the 3-OT game and Kohls' winning goal, so I wanted to make sure I posted the breakdown of the goal, as well as their comments.

Here's the anatomy of the goal that ended the longest game in NAHL history at 116 minutes, 57 seconds:

1. As the video starts, at about the 2-2 1/2 second mark, you see the puck hit Minot's Jadin Martin and deflect all the way across the ice to Kohls, a defenseman, who beats a Minot forechecker to it at the Bruins' blue line. Kohls makes an instant decision to push the puck up to Niko Hildenbrand rather than skate it across the center line and dump it in.

2. Hildenbrand was about to go off for a shift change, but stayed on when he saw the puck slide to Kohls. Hildenbrand carried it into the Minot zone, with Kohls and Easton Viitala crossing the blue line shortly after him. 

3. Hildenbrand, knowing a Minot defender is directly in his shooting lane, decides to let a slap shot fly from just inside the Tauros blue line. As he does, Kohls and Viitala both go to the net and nearly collide with one another.

4. Hildenbrand's shot hits the Minot defender and trickles through his skates (if it's a clean shot-block, the puck probably goes harmlessly into the corner or over to the halfwall and the game goes on). Viitala alertly picks it up and keeps going to the net. At this point, we see it's essentially a 3-on-2 for Austin, with one Minot defender watching Hildenbrand and attempting to block his shot and one Minot defender keeping an eye on both Kohls and Viitala. 

5. Viitala does what the Bruins coaches have been instructing their players to do since the first OT -- put shots on net. Don't just throw a puck toward the goal, put a good shot on net. As he does this, the Minot defender who blocked Hildenbrand's shot is too late turning around and can't get a body or stick on Viitala. The other Tauros defender also reacts too late to break up Viitala's shot attempt. From Minot's perspective, it's not the end of the world because goalie Brandon Wildung is square to Viitala and in perfect position to make the first save. 

6. The problem for Minot is that the defenseman who reacted too late to break up Viitala's shot -- the one who initially was watching both Viitala and Kohls -- drops to his knees and attempts to stick-check Viitala's shot and take away his passing lane. That leaves Kohls unattended as Minot's third man back is well behind the play. 

7. Kohls knows he has to act fast as that third Tauros defender is coming. He sees the puck sitting right in front of Wildung's pad and he pulls it away quickly and calmly, then flips it over Wildung's outstretched leg as that third Minot defender finally realizes what's happening and dives to break up Kohls' shot. It doesn't work, though, and Kohls scores to send the Bruins to the division finals for a third straight year. Had Viitala held the puck a couple seconds longer and attempted to make the cross-crease pass to Kohls, a Minot defender likely would've been able to break up the play. 

8. The Bruins players are so exhausted, they can't even sprint over to hogpile on Kohls. We can see Josh Bretner and Hildenbrand, two of the other players on the ice when the goal was scored, glide over to the far wall to embrace Kohls and Viitala. In fact, it looks like backup goalie Dillon Kelley is the only one to leave his feet and jump into the pile. 

9. Losing a game like that is a lonely feeling; none of the Tauros players skated over to console Wildung after the goal. I'm not drawing any sort of conclusions from that; I don't know the inner workings of Minot's team well enough. I just know that it seems like every time Nick Lehr has given up a big goal this year, there are two or three Bruins players tapping him on the pads or putting an arm around him.

10. Bruins coaches Chris Tok, Jamie Huffman and Keaton Wolf breathe a sigh of relief that 1) they don't have a to play a Game 5 on Monday in Austin and 2) they get to change clothes and make the long bus ride back to Austin with a positive feeling (and they finally get to get some rest).

NOTES ON THE GOAL AND THE MARATHON GAME

* Hildenbrand was very close to not even being in the game in the third OT, much less in position to set up the winning goal. He was injured in the first period (upper body; not a concussion) and played a few shifts in the second period. He was obviously hurting and Tok told him to take his pads off and ice the injury.

"I was in the locker room icing and watching with the guys who were scratched that night," Hildenbrand said. "I iced through the third period, first overtime and second overtime and then I said 'coach it's feeling better, let me get out there,' and he said 'it's your call' so I went back and, I've never got dressed that fast before."

Hildenbrand made it to the bench about 3-4 minutes into the third OT, as the coaches were actually feeding players bananas and oranges ON THE BENCH. 

"I'm not saying that did it for us, but it sure helped," Tok said. "Niko actually wanted to change (on the winning goal). He shot the puck and stood there after he shot it, just to watch. You can see on video, he kinda took a step toward the bench like he was going to finish his change, then he watched and it went in the back of the net and he looked like 'OK, I don't need to change.'"

* Kohls made a heads-up play to jump into the attack, though he said he just did it instinctively (the benefit of being a defenseman who converted from forward) and didn't realize the Minot defenders weren't hustling back into their zone. 

"You want your defensemen doing that and we did quite a few drills throughout the week leading up to it, where the defensemen were jumping into the play," Tok said.

* Hildenbrand on playing in the longest game in the NAHL: "Never been in anything like that. We were just thinking, move the puck, get it on net, everybody's tired, the goalie's tired, so shoot the puck as much as possible and hopefully you get something to go in."

* Kohls on the feeling as the game went on and on: "We knew it was going to be a really gritty goal (to win it). We just thought 'keep getting pucks on net.' The goalies were playing great, glove saves everywhere. It wasn't going to be pretty. We knew it'd take a second or third chance. It wasn't going to be pretty."

* Tok, on what coaches were doing as the game went on: "The guys were playing as hard as they could, you could tell. Some fatigue was setting in, but it was basically be a cheerleader as much as we could and be a nutritionist."

Again, check back later today for a post on the Central Division Finals, which begin with Games 1 and 2 tonight and Saturday at 7:05 in Riverside Arena in Austin. 

And here's an attempt to put the video in here; if this doesn't work, click on the link at the top of this post to see Kohls' game-winning goal from last Saturday.

 

April 05, 2014

Junior Hockey | Wild playoff opener for Austin, Minot

Posted by: Feldman

First off, there's no need to panic if you an Austin Bruins fan. 

Yes, the Bs are down 1-0 in a best-of-5 NAHL Central Division semifinal playoff series against Minot after an 8-6 loss at Riverside Arena on Friday. 

Here's the game story that is in Saturday's Post-Bulletin.

Yes, it was less-than-pretty hockey.

But, remember, this Bruins team won 40 games in the regular season and a second consecutive division title. Teams don't do that if they're not mentally tough. This Bruins team is mentally tough, though we certainly saw that toughness tested tonight by a number of Tauros players who were doing their best to get under the Bruins' skin. 

This game was such an aberration for both teams for a number of reasons:

* Minot had scored more than four goals in a game just once during the 60-game regular season. It scored four in the first 16:07 on Friday.

* Austin won all four regular-season meetings this season at home against Minot. The Tauros hadn't won a game at Riverside since April 13, 2013, which was Game 2 of a Central Division semifinal series.

* Austin goalie Nick Lehr wasn't sharp. He let in at least two that he'd like to have back, I'm sure, but he also received very little help in front of him. On at least three Minot goals, the goal-scorer was allowed to walk into close range without being touched or covered. In other words, seven of Minot's eight goals (not counting the empty-netter at the end) were full-team breakdowns on Austin's part. 

* Lehr gave up four goals in the first period. He gave up four goals just four times in 49 regular-season appearances. He had never given up more than five in a game during his three seasons with the Bruins. Minot scored five in the first 26 minutes.

* Minot was 3-for-5 on the power play. That was completely out of character for a Bruins penalty kill that was outstanding in the regular season, ranking No. 2 in the league with a 90.5 percent kill rate. "Both of their first two power plays, we had an opportunity to cut cycles off and clear pucks and we didn't do it," Tok said. "They got second opportunities that ended up in the back of the net. So, losing battles because we were stick-checking. It gave them more opportunities to score and they capitalized."

That probably sounds like I'm hanging the loss on Lehr, which is not the case. That's not fair to him, considering it wasn't a good game in any facet for the Bruins. Even when they went up 3-1, coach Chris Tok wasn't happy with how they were playing. 

Tok said he felt like the Bruins were playing a preseason game.

To me, it felt like a good team that was coming off four emotionally and physically draining games against its biggest rival. Austin never got in a rhtyhm. It led 3-1, then gave up three goals in less than six minutes to fall behind 4-3 with 3:53 to go in the first. Austin tied the score three times, but never took the lead back.

It felt somewhat like the WCHA Final Five championship game a couple years ago, when a very good Minnesota team led North Dakota 3-0, then gave up six unanswered goals -- five in the third period -- to lose 6-3. That night, everything North Dakota threw at the net was going in. That's how things felt Friday night at Riverside. Everything Minot threw at the net was going in.

In 2012, Minnesota came back the following week and took it to North Dakota, 5-1, in the West Regional championship game to earn a berth in the Frozen Four. I have a feeling that's how this Austin team will respond, by going out and playing the way it has the past two weeks. We'll see, I guess, what this team is made of.

"We were playing pretty badly to be up 3-1," Tok said. "Then, what happened, we're playing bad, get up 3-1, then we were worse and we saw what happened after that."

Tok said the Bruins had a good week of practice, but he was a bit concerned that after taking three of four from Bismarck over the previous two weeks, to win the division by a point, Austin might not be sharp.

"My biggest fear that I had coming in was that it was going to be a letdown because of the drive that we had to win the title and how intense those four games were against Bismarck," Tok said. "I was worried that guys were battered and bruised, so guys would go out and protect themselves, and looking at all the stick checks, that's what we did. I don't if there's anybody in our room that needs an ice back after tonight's game. Last week, every guy on the team was using ice bags because of blocking shots and running into guys and sticking their nose in there and competing. Tonight I didn't see too many guys use ice bags and I don't think we needed many."

Yes, the Bruins lost, but they scored six goals and put 39 shots on net.

My guess is we see a lineup change or two for tonight's Game 2, but I'd bet my next paycheck that Lehr -- unless he slips in the parking lot and breaks his leg or something -- will start in goal. He's going to want to backstop this team to three wins in the next four games and he has certainly earned that right. 

Don't be shocked if No. 31 -- and the defensive corps in front of him -- has a big game in Game 2. 

AROUND THE NAHL

* In the other NAHL Central Divison semifinal series, Bismarck went on the road and beat Aberdeen 4-2, thanks to a hat trick from Evan Giesler and 29 saves from Aaron Nelson. The Bobcats' victory means both lower-seeded teams in the division went on the road and won their playoff openers. That's something that Tok has said all season -- anyone in this division can beat anyone on a given night. 

* No. 3-seeded Wenatchee (Wash.) beat the No. 2 seed Minnesota Wilderness 3-0 in Game 1 of a Midwest Division semifinal series. Wenatchee was the only other lower-seeded team in the NAHL to win on Friday. 

* Port Huron, the regular season North Division champ, already has a 2-0 lead in its best-of-5 division semifinal series against Johnstown. Port Huron has won a pair of one-goal games -- including a 4-3 victory in OT on Friday -- to take control of that series.

* No. 2 Michigan beat No. 3 Janesville 4-2 in Game 1 of the other North Division semifinal series.

* In the South Division semifinals, top-seeded Amarillo beat Wichita Falls 4-2 and No. 2 Topeka beat No. 3 Rio Grande Valley 3-1 in the first games of their best-of-5 series.

 

April 03, 2014

Junior Hockey | Bruins primed for postseason push; Folin receives praise

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.

BRUINS-TAUROS, HEAD-TO-HEAD

Let's take a look at the Austin-Minot first-round matchup:

GOALIES
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.
Advantage: Bruins.

FORWARDS
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.
Advantage: Austin.

DEFENSEMEN
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.
Advantage: Austin.

THE PREDICTION
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.