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451 posts categorized "Hockey"

July 21, 2015

Statement from Rochester CVB on potential USHL team playing at MCC

Posted by: Feldman

The Mayo Civic Center is undergoing a massive $79 million renovation project, expected to be completed in 2017. Part of that renovation could include the addition of a refrigeration system so that ice could be installed for hockey (and, I'm guessing, touring ice shows such as Disney On Ice-type shows), in particular a possible USHL expansion franchise.

Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Brad Jones issued a statement today that indicates the process is underway to find out what types of sports and entertainment options may be feasible and successful in Rochester.

Results of the study are expected in September.

The statement reads:

“The Rochester Convention & Visitors Bureau, in collaboration with a group of interested parties, is engaged in a feasibility study to determine which type of sports and entertainment may be successful and sustainable in the Rochester market.

The study will assist in identifying what type of facility is needed. Exploration and understanding the needs of the United States Hockey League, in addition to other sports organizations, are a component of the feasibility study.

"The results of the study are expected to be available in September. Upon completion, the outcomes will be utilized to determine if future opportunities are pursued.”

So, there we go. I guess we'll find out in roughly two months if the Civic Center is a good candidate for the USHL (and possibly other sports leagues) and vice-versa. If making the arena hockey-friendly is a possibility, that would clear -- as far as I can tell -- probably the biggest hurdle in getting the country's top junior league back in Roch.

Junior Hockey | The USHL may make a comeback in Rochester

Posted by: Feldman

Dust off those old Rochester Mustangs T-shirts and jerseys. You may need them again in a couple of years.

Or maybe not. (But it still would be cool to dust them off and wear them.)

The USHL may be on its way back to Rochester. In 2 or 3 years. Or maybe not. There is an owernship group in place and ready to bring the league back to town, if all of the details can be worked out. The team would almost certainly be an expansion team and probably would start play in the 2017-18 season.

I have not yet been able to get anyone from the United States Hockey League, the Mayo Civic Center or the ownership group, on the phone. I left messages this afternoon for USHL commissioner Bob Fallen, as well as Mayo Civic Center Executive Director Donna Drews, and two of the men who are likely heading up or heavily involved in the ownership group. I haven't heard back from any of them, but it's only been about nine hours, so let's give them a little time, eh?

Why call Drews at the MCC? Well, because, from everything I'm hearing, the owners want to place a potential franchise in downtown, which would obviously mean playing in Taylor Arena.

The problem: Taylor Arena isn't fit to hold ice right now. No refrigeration system is in place. That said, if one is going to be installed, now would be the time, with the giant renovation project already underway at the Civic Center. (Personally, I wouldn't at all mind walking across the street from the P-B a couple of dozen times a winter to watch USHL hockey). Perhaps that means the ownership group would pay for the cooling system? 

What about the Rochester Rec Center, you ask? The Rec Center is an awesome place to watch hockey. The view from the loft is the best spot in town to watch a game. However, with the growth -- both in terms of number of teams and in terms of recognition as a ultra-talented league -- of the USHL, I'd guess the league is looking to place teams in arenas that seat more than the 2,600 or so that the Rec Center can hold. But selling out the Rec Center would mean more attendance than a couple of USHL teams with roughly 3,000-seat buildings that don't sell out on a nightly basis.

Almost all of the arenas that house USHL teams seat at least 3,500, many of them seat 5,000-plus. The smallest arenas in the league are the Chicago Steel's rink, Edge Ice Arena (3,000 capacity), and the Mystique Ice Center, home of the Dubuque Fighting Saints (3,079). The Madison Capitols' Alliant Energy Center Coliseum (10,231) and the brand new Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls (10,678) are the biggest in the league.

The Mayo Civic Center's Taylor Arena lists a seating capacity of 5,200 for concerts and 7,200 for festival-seating events. At 5,200 it would be right about in the middle of the league's arenas as far as seating capacity.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Again, nothing is set in stone yet, as far as I know. From what I understand, though, it's gone beyond the "it would be cool to bring the USHL back to Roch, we should put a team together" stage. One of the potential owners even took a trip to Omaha to see the Lancers' new rink back in late May and, I'm assuming, to talk with ownership there about what all it takes to operate a franchise in the country's top junior hockey league.

 

Why Rochester?

Lots of reasons. Sure, detractors could point to the failure of Rochester's last USHL franchise. The Mustangs folded after the 2001-02 season, partly due to dwindling attendance, but more so, I'm told, because of ownership who had some financial issues, primarily not paying bills.

I remember at one point when I first started on the hockey beat here, probably 2005 or 2006, talking to Rochester Ice Hawks owner Doc Fatis about some of the obstacles they faced when moving their team here from LeSeuer. There was still a lot of skepticism and distrust from the business community toward junior hockey teams. The Ice Hawks have done a remarkable job of building that trust in their product on and off the ice. And if the ownership of this new USHL team would involve the people I'm told it will, there will be a built-in level of trust and familiarity within the community.

So, back to, why Rochester?

The whole Destination Medical Center plan probably helps. If the city is truly going to double in size in the next two decades, a USHL team here would go from drawing on an immediate population of 110,000 to one of more than 200,000, as well as drawing fans from surrounding communities.

As the league stands right now, there are 17 teams. Here is a look at the league's footprint. Fold it in half and Rochester would be almost right on the crease in the fold. A new team here could be placed in either conference, going east or west to play most of its games.

Fallen has said in the past that keeping travel time down as much as possible is one priority. Rochester is less than 400 miles from 12 of the 17 current USHL teams, and only 405 from another (Lincoln, Neb.). Roughly half (eight) of the league's teams are within 275 miles.

Fallen talked at length about USHL expansion during this interview with The Pipeline radio show out of Edmonton back in late May. (Here's a link to that interview; skip ahead to the 5:45 mark, then the 7:45 mark to hear him talk about what the league is looking for in an expansion market)

If you don't want to listen to the whole thing, here's some of what he had to say, while talking about the Indiana Ice re-joining the league in 2016-17:

"We're working on a couple things right now that would add potentially two additional teams for '17-'18."

"We are approached quite frequently (by) folks who are looking to get teams in the United States Hockey League. We've tried to focus on identifying the right markets that fit our business model. I'm a believer that the market has to be first in terms of having a building that's sustainable and having a lease that's right for the footprint of our league, and making sure we're not asking these young men to be on buses for 15, 16, 20 hours for road trips. We're trying to keep things into the midwest, upper midwest, just to, you know, kind of fit in to our business model."

"I really think you'll be looking at something that fits right in our geographic business model. We've been approached by a number of folks about moving east and it's such a huge market out there for hockey and yet they also have tons of Division I college, pro, and minor pro (teams). We're just concerned that the travel would be too taxing. 

"Right now, Youngstown (Ohio) is our eastern-most team. To ask kids to get on a bus and go from Sioux Falls or Sioux City to Youngstown, you're looking at a 10- 12- or 14-hour trip, so we're trying not to go much further than that right now."

Read into Fallen's comments what you will, but Rochester seems to check off a lot of boxes on the league's wish list. That said, as mentioned above, the arena -- the lack of a refrigeration system in it -- could be a sticking point that's too tough to overcome. 

 

Other markets of interest

Fallen addressed the question of adding teams out east, and his comments seem to indicate that markets such as Buffalo, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would not be in the running for a USHL team, though the league will hold a preseason mini-showcase in Pittsburgh this fall (Sept. 18-19), with four teams playing games there over two days. Perhaps that's intended more for young players to see what the USHL is all about.

Even if the league intends to add two more teams for the '17-'18 season, there are other markets that could be very attractive.

Where else could the league expand? I have a few ideas, let me know if I'm missing some obvious places in the Midwest or if you think I'm off-base on these. I'm just spitballing:

* Kansas City. K.C. has been mentioned often when NHL expansion or relocation talks come up, though it always seems to get shuffled aside in favor of Seattle, Las Vegas, Quebec City, etc. It has been home to pro teams in the past and is currently the home of the Kansas City Jr. Mavs program (formerly Russell Stover). K.C. also is a very easy drive to the USHL's teams in Iowa and Nebraska.

* Dayton, Ohio. Dayton would make a lot of sense in a possible division with Youngstown, the Michigan teams and even the Indiana Ice when they return in 2016-17. Hara Arena isn't shiny and new, but it seats 5,500, which falls right in line with what the USHL is looking for. The community has had pro hockey teams in the past, including the Dayton Gems of the CHL and the Dayton Bombers of the ECHL. The Bombers stuck around for about a dozen years, which could mean the USHL would find some success there.

* Eau Claire, Wis. I don't know what their arenas hold, seating-wise, but Eau Claire is a big enough city (roughly 65,000-70,000 population) and it pumps out some really talented high school players on a yearly basis, with Memorial High School always competing for trips to state and titles. Again, I don't know what Hobbs Ice Center holds, as far as seating capacity, perhaps it's not big enough, but Eau Claire would be another strong geographical fit.

--------------------

That's all I have for now. I'll keep efforting the major players in this deal and be back with more when I can get some confirmations of what the conversations to date have consisted of.

June 10, 2015

Junior Hockey | A look at the Austin Bruins draft class

Posted by: Feldman

The Austin Bruins' new coaching staff did a solid job of putting together its first draft class on Tuesday. Coupled with nine tenders who have already signed to play with the Bruins, Austin's first-year head coach Kyle Grabowski has a versatile group to work with come September.

Of course, we don't know who or how many of the draft picks and/or tenders will come to Austin, but if any of those 21 guys choose to play in the NAHL, the Bruins hold their rights. Keep in mind that NAHL teams often take flyers on players who could or likely will make a USHL (Tier I) team, or a team in a Canadian junior league. If things don't pan out in that league, the NAHL team then holds their rights at Tier II. 

So don't expect all 12 draft picks to be on the Bs roster in September. And don't be shocked if they're not all there at the Bruins tryout camp next month in Somerset, Wis. (July 7-10). 

Here's a look at the Bs 12 draft picks:

ROUND 1, No. 20 overall
Vince Marinaro, F, Des Moines (USHL) (3-11-97, 18-y-o) 5-10, 160: Marinaro split last season between Coulee Region of the NAHL and Des Moines of the USHL. He started the season with the Chill, recording 2-4--6 in 22 games, then put up 2 assists in 25 games with Des Moines. He had a goal and two assists in four games against the Bruins last season. He played for Team Illinois program from Bantam through U18 levels. In 2013-14, had 11-17--28 in 28 games with Team Illinois U18. Put up 8-5--13 in 26 games for Team Illinois U16 Midget in 2012-13. He is a native of Algonquin, Ill.
 
ROUND 2, No. 43 overall
Mason Anderson, D, Waterloo (USHL) (2-23-95, 20-y-o) 6-2, 174: Played 50 games in the USHL last season, the first 30 with Madison and the last 20 with Waterloo. Put up 1-5--6 in Madison and 0-1--1 in Waterloo. Listed at 6-2, 174 pounds. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska. A '95 birthdate, will turn 21 next February. In 2013-14, played for Drumheller of the AJHL and Weyburn of the SJHL. Prior to that, played Bantam and Midgets for the Alaska Wolves U14, 14AAA and 16AAA programs. Also played for the Alaska Acaes Midget 18AAA team.
 
ROUND 3, No. 48 overall
IAN BECK, D, Milwaukee Jr. Admirals (TIEHL U18) (4-5-98, 17-y-o) 6-4, 200: Beck played for the Jr. Admirals and had 3-13--16 in 49 games this season. He is just 17 years old, will not turn 18 until next April. Bruins received this pick in a trade with the Minnesota Magicians. Beck is a Chicago native.
 
ROUND 3, No. 65 overall
A.J. Drobot, F, New Jersey Rockets (EHL) (4-14-98, 17-y-o) 5-8, 176: Played one game for Sioux Falls in the USHL this past season. Put up 11-18--29 in 35 games for the Rockets in 2014-15. Was a big scorer for the Rockets' U19 Midget team in 2013-14, putting up 43-22--65 in 52 games. Is a University of Maine commit. From Churchville, Pa.
 
ROUND 4, No. 87 overall
Frankie Sullivan, D, Springfield Pics (USPHL) (2-29-96, 19-y-o) 6-0, 187: Played for four different teams in the USPHL last season, finishing with Springfield for the final 23 games. Totaled 6-8--14 in 48 games. Prior to that, played high school hockey at Westminster Prep in Connecticut. A native of Fairfield, Conn.
 
ROUND 5, No. 109 overall
Kyle Madore, G, Pittsburgh Penguins Elite U18 (Tier I U18 Elite) (2-10-97, 18-y-o) 6-2, 165: Was 11-5-0, 2.54, .906 with Penguins Tier I Midget last season. Went 3-0 in the playoffs, with a 1.32 GAA and a .940 save pct. Brother, Rob, played goalie at the University of Vermont from 2008-12 and has played professionally in the ECHL since then. He played this season for the Cincinnati Cyclones. Another older brother, Matt, played for New Mexico in the NAHL in the 2010-11 season. Athletic ability runs in the family. Former Minnesota Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey is their cousin.
 
ROUND 6, No. 126 overall
Logan Haskins, F, Rochester Mayo (MN-HS) (1997) 5-9, 155: Haskins led the city in scoring for a second consecutive season last season as a senior. The diminutive, slick-skating playmaker finished his three-year varsity career with 116 points and he put up at least one point in 23 of Mayo's 26 games this season. He also had 13 multi-point games this season, playing on a line that combined for 125 points.

Round 7, No. 141 overall
Nick Wilson, F, Michigan Nationals U18 (ECEL) (Birthdate, Ht., Wt. N/A)

Wilson skated for the Michigan Nationals last year in the Midget Major division of junior hockey, where the team competed against HPHL, T1EHL and East Coast Elite League (ECEL) teams. The 18-year-old from Bartlett, Ill., was teammates with current Bruins tender Brendan VanSweden on the Nationals and could be teammates again in Austin next year.

Round 8, No. 153 overall
Nigel Nelson, F, Chicago Young Americans U16 (HPHL) (1-17-98, 17-y-o) 6-1, 170
Nelson had a strong final season in the U16 division of the HPHL last year for the Chicago Young Americans. The Crystal Lake, Ill., native tallied 13 points (7-6--13) in 25 games and turned 17 in January. Nelson is listed as a 6’1 forward and would finish high school in Austin if he makes the Bruins roster. Before playing for CYA, he played for Team Illinois’ AAA bantam team.

Round 9, No. 164 overall
Ezra Hall, F, Winnipeg Blues (MJHL) (4-9-96, 19-y-o) 6-5, 201
Hall is the only member of the Bruins’ 30-player protected roster from Canada, as he hails from Winnipeg. The 19-year-old defenseman played for the Winnipeg Blues in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) last year, where he had 26 points (12-14--26) in 53 games. Hall’s size could be a huge factor on the Bruins’ blue line.

 

 

Round 10, No. 174 overall
Jacob Paganelli, F, Shattuck St. Mary's Prep (3-28-97, 18-y-o) 5-11, 170
Paganelli, from Verona, N.J., has committed to play for Division I Princeton University in his home state, beginning with the 2016-17 season. He could add a big scoring punch to the Bruins if he doesn’t play in the USHL next year. Paganelli finished with 59 points (24-35--59) in 54 games last season at Shattuck.

Round 11, No. 184 overall
Johnny Pesek, D, Soo Indians 18U (Midget Major) (10-28-98, 16-y-o) 5-10, 150Pesek is the youngest of the 12 Bruins draft picks but has a very high ceiling with four years of junior eligibility remaining. The defenseman from Lake Forest, Ill., won’t turn 17 until October, and spent last season playing AAA midget majors for the Soo Indians 18U team. Pesek finished with 47 points (18-29--47) in 59 games for the Indians and also had the opportunity to play in two USHL games for the Green Bay Gamblers alongside former Bruins Sam Kauppila and Jason Pawloski.

May 19, 2015

BLOG | Bruins need to act soon on coaching decision

Posted by: Feldman

We'll put a wrap on the 2014-15 Austin Bruins season here on the blog tomorrow, but...

As was first reported here last night, Austin Bruins assistant coach Jamie Huffman has indeed resigned. 

Here's the story from today's P-B, with comments from Huffman and head coach Chris Tok, who is still in place and will continue his duties until told otherwise from Bruins ownership.

The Bruins owners, Craig Patrick and Mike Cooper, issued a brief statement today:

Bruins assistant coach Jamie Huffman will not return to Austin next season.

Prior to the beginning of the 2014-15-season coach Huff told Bruins ownership that he would likely not be back for the 2015-16 season. Several weeks ago Huff confirmed that he would not be back and asked that we not announce his departure until the end of the season. We respected his wishes and did not announce that he was leaving until today. 

In the three years that Huff has been the main recruiter for the Bruins he has been responsible for bringing in the talent that has brought us so much success.

The Austin Bruins organization wishes coach Huffman the best in all of his future endeavors.

Read into that what you will. It says nothing about Tok, who, as far as I can gather, has not been told if he'll be back or when or if he'll be let go. What I can tell you is that the relationship between the coaches and owners has been strained for some time, beyond just this season. That's pretty obvious, though, eh?

What we also know is that, if this team intends to be successful next season, it needs to make some decisions and make them fast. 

The NAHL Draft is 20 days away. Summer tryout camps need to be organized and operated; on a list of team tryout camps on the NAHL website, the Bruins are the only team in the league not on the list. Dates for a final team tryout/veteran camp need to be put in stone sooner than later. The Bruins still have two tenders available to fill. That also means they have a half-dozen players signed to tenders, including Rochester Lourdes defenseman Griff Slightam, and I'm positive those players would very much like to know who their coach(es) will be.

If, in fact, there is going to be a coaching change in Austin, a new staff will have to scramble to make sure the current tenders are going to come to Austin (they can't play for any other team in the NAHL, but they're not bound to play in the league) and they need to get tryout camps going; they're behind every other team in the league in that regard.

On top of that, Tok will have little time to look for a coaching job, if he decides to stay in coaching.

The longer this drags out, the worse it is for the product that will be on the ice this fall. Attendance at Riverside this season dipped below the 1,000-per-game average for the first time since the team's inaugural season. It was a drop of 226 fans per game in the regular season (from 1,215 to 989) compared to last season. Over the course of 28 regular-season home games (not 30, because two of every team's "home" games are held at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, in September), that's more than 6,300 less fans. That's a lot of ticket revenue and concession stand revenue lost.

BRUINS AVERAGE ATTENDANCE

2010-11: 756
2011-12: 1,021
2012-13: 1,220
2013-14: 1,215
2014-15: 989

If the head coach -- whether it's Tok or someone new -- has little time to put together a team (kids are going to have 21 other NAHL tryouts to choose from, as well as USHL tryouts and some Tier III tryouts, such as the NA3HL), the team will be playing catch-up to the rest of the division. That's not an easy task, as we saw this season. Minot is improving every year. Bismarck had a "down" year and won't stay that way long. Aberdeen and Brookings gave the Bruins tough games every time they met, despite the S.D. teams not being as deep or talented.

Expectations have been set high in Austin. If the Bruins fall to the bottom of the division, what happens to attendance? Aberdeen finished fourth in the division standings this season, yet led the division in attendance at 1,419 fans per game. Will Riverside see that many if the Bruins are a sub-.500 team?

The point of this is, if the coaching situation isn't solved quickly, the on-ice product will suffer and the fans will, too.

--------

Here are some more comments from Jamie Huffman and Chris Tok about Huffman's time with the Bruins and his departure:

HUFFMAN:

"I'll miss the kids and I'll miss (Tok), too. He's really good at what he does and he gave me an opportunity I'll never forget. I'm most proud of those banners we hung. No one can ever -- ever -- take those away from us."

"I try to work hard and work with good people like (Tok) and I'm smart enough to know that I have to work even harder to keep up with them."

"It puts a smile on my face, even in the middle of a game, to look down by our locker room and see all those (former players) standing there. The bond we have ... we spend so much time together with them and hopefully have earned their respect."

TOK: 

"Jamie excels at numerous things, like getting more out of the players, the little things in practice. When they're doing drills, just the little things, telling them to go faster or push themselves more ... just the energy he brought to the rink every single day. He could be a gruff individual, but the players loved him."

"The name he's built for himself in recruiting and the resume he's built, it's all because he does his due diligence. He turned over every single rock on every single player to make sure he got the kids that were right for us."

"His favorite quote to recruits was always 'do your homework.' He meant do your homework on Chris Tok, ask other people. He would sell kids on our team, our program, but he wanted them to do their due diligence too. 
"When players come here, they know we are pretty demanding. Our players know what they're getting into when they come here. I've read and heard player say that it sinks in and they appreciate it more once they're gone."

"Jamie put a lot of time in with the players. He was a huge part of that bridge between the players, the captains, and me."

 

May 15, 2015

BLOG | Rochester's Zmolek has been key to Bruins playoff push, history of Robertson Cup

Posted by: Feldman

Since I'm settled into my press row seat at Riverside Arena with 85 minutes 'til puck drop, why not do one more blog before the Robertson Cup Finals begin?

Rochester Century standout defenseman Riese Zmolek played in four games for the Austin Bruins back in November, prior to the start of the high school season. When Century's season ended in the Section 1AA semifinals, Zmolek rejoined the Bs two days later. 

I've avoided writing much about him as a B for two reasons: 1) I wrote a lot about him -- deservedly so -- in his stellar high school career, and 2) I wanted to let him settle in with the Bruins and not write about him just because he's from Rochester.

He's definitely settled in and is a valuable member of the Bs defensive corps. They use him in every situation and full confidence in him. I talked with Bs coach Chris Tok before last weekend's national semifinals about Zmolek. Here's what he had to say about how Riese has adjusted to the NAHL.

---

Zmolek, 18, is one of three Bruins players who were selected in the USHL Draft a couple weeks ago, being picked in the second round by the Cedar Rapids Roughriders. Defenseman Ian Scheid (Fargo) also went in the second round, and forward Nico Sturm (Tri-City) went in the 5th round.

"Riese can really bring something to a (USHL) hockey team and help them win and get into championships," Tok said. "They (USHL coaches) are looking for guys who win. Riese is here and he's won."

Tok said Zmolek has made his own name in hockey circles. Sure, everyone knows who his dad is (Doug, a veteran of 467 NHL games and a former first-round draft pick of the Minnesota North Stars), but Riese is in Austin because of his ability, not his name.

From the first time Riese played in a game with the Bs back in November, the coaching staff loved the way he always went full speed. If he made a mistake, he was doing it at full speed. There was no hesitation to his game. As Tok put it to me back in November, coaches love working with guys who play with some decisiveness. They can work to correct mistakes guys make while playing all-out. 

"Riese is probalby never going to get away from his last name," Tok said, "but he's a competitor just like his old man was and that's why he's here, not because of his dad, but because he's a competitor. He does things hard and he's decisive. You can't have a high school kid come in to this level and be soft. He has been a really good addition to our team and will make a good jump to the USHL."

As far using Zmolek in all situations, assistant coach Jamie Huffman runs the defensemen during games. He generally determines which pairings are put on the ice, with Tok, of course, holding veto power.

"Huff runs the D and has a lot of confidence in (Zmolek)," Tok said. "I can tell you that I have not walked down to that end of the bench and said 'hey, don't play him.' He's here to play. We didn't have him come after his high school season, or before, just to sit on the bench.
"When he came the first time (in November), he saw more power-play time. When he came back, we had some chemistry going on the power play and he hasn't seen as much time there.
"A couple things that make him so good defensively late in games is, he's hard on pucks, when he gets his stick in there it's heavy and he does something good with it. He's getting it out of the zone and not just flipping it softly. He protects the front of the net really well, knocks people down, and he's not afraid to block shots. If you do those things, it makes you a valuable asset."

Zmolek didn't have any points in 12 regular-season games, but has three points in 11 playoff games, including his first NAHL goal, which he scored in a 4-3 series-clinching Game 3 victory against the Aberdeen Wings in the first round of the divisional playoffs. 

Zmolek was somewhat of a free-wheeler at Century. That's not to say he was out of control, but because of his skating and puck-handling ability, he had the green light to go end-to-end, become a fourth forward whenever he chose.

The Bruins coaches have encouraged their offensive-minded d-men (specifically Zmolek and Ian Scheid) to use their skills and creativity, but to choose the proper spots to do so.

"We've talked to him a couple times, not necessarily backing him off, but about making the times he (jumps into the play), doing it more intelligently," Tok said. "We talk a lot about risk/reward. We want all our D to go, we want them all to jump, but ... a lot of them come in and, the thing we talk about a lot is, you don't have to do it all by yourself.
"We have no problem with you guys going, but beating guys 1-on-1 or trying to go through three or four guys, that's not what we're looking for, or what we expect you to do. But, by all means, go. You have instincts, use them. We're not throwing the reins and saying 'you have to stay back and play D and that's all we want you to do.' He has the creativity to go, it's just make sure you're doing it together."

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JUST WHAT IS THE ROBERTSON CUP?

To be honest, I had no idea until today what the Robertson Cup's origin is or why it's named as such.

My P-B colleague Donny Henn called it the "Frederick Cup" on a radio show a week or so ago. I like the ring of that, too, but we decided to just stick with the NAHL Championship Series for most of that show. 

That got me thinking, though, what's the origin of the Robertson Cup? I'm guessing a lot of players, and maybe some coaches, in the NAHL don't know either. 

The Robertson Cup is the trophy (good pic of it here) awarded to the NAHL playoff champion, which also is the USA Hockey Junior A, Tier II national champion. 

The Cup was brought into play for the NAHL champion in 1976 and was named the Robertson Cup in the 1980s, named after Chuck Robertson, a pioneer of junior hockey with the NAHL and in Michigan. Robertson was the owner of the Paddock Pools Saints (Estero, Mich.), who won the Cup seven consecutive seasons from 1976-83.

This weekend, a Minnesota team will win it for the first time in its 39-year history.

Either the Austin Bruins or Minnesota Wilderness will add their name this weekend to this list of past Robertson Cup champions:

2014 Fairbanks Ice Dogs
2013 Amarillo Bulls
2012 Texas Tornado
2011 Fairbanks Ice Dogs
2010 Bismarck Bobcats
2009 St. Louis Bandits
2008 St. Louis Bandits
2007 St. Louis Bandits
2006 Texas Tornado
2005 Texas Tornado
2004 Texas Tornado
2003 Pittsburgh Forge
2002 Compuware Ambassadors
2001 Texas Tornado
2000 Danville Wings
1999 Compuware Ambassadors
1998 Compuware Ambassadors
1997 Springfield Jr. Blues
1996 Springfield Jr. Blues
1995 Compuware Ambassadors
1994 Compuware Ambassadors
1993 Kalamazoo Jr. K Wings
1992 Compuware Ambassadors
1991 Kalamazoo Jr. K Wings
1990 Compuware Ambassadors
1989 Compuware Ambassadors
1988 Compuware Ambassadors
1987 Compuware Ambassadors
1986 Compuware Ambassadors
1985 St. Clair Falcons
1984 St. Clair Falcons
1983 Paddock Pools
1982 Paddock Pools
1981 Paddock Pools
1980 Paddock Pools
1979 Paddock Pools
1978 Paddock Pools
1977 Paddock Pools
1976 Little Caesars

Bear Tracks | Breaking down the Robertson Cup Finals

Posted by: Feldman

AUSTIN -- On Jan. 2, the Austin Bruins loaded up and bussed to Brookings, S.D., for what seemed like just another regular season game in the North American Hockey League. 

Two nights earlier, the Bruins had been beaten soundly on their home ice by the Coulee Region Chill, a 4-1 defeat that dampened the New Year's Eve celebration in A-town. 
 
But on Jan. 2, Evan Smith made 19 saves and -- fittingly -- Luke Dietsch and Trevor Boyd scored in a shootout to give the Bruins a 3-2 victory against the Blizzard. 
 
That started a second-half run where the Bruins went 21-3-3 and passed Minot to win the Central Division championship and lock up home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the NAHL postseason.
 
Somehow, a team that went through a 6-8-6 stretch in October and November -- and looked out of sync and disjointed on the ice -- came together and put together as dramatic a turnaround as you'll see.
 
And in less than six hours, they'll play host to Game 1 of the Robertson Cup Finals.
 
The Bruins will face another team, the Minnesota Wilderness, that at times this season looked like a long shot to make it out of their division playoffs. The Wilderness were down 2-0 in a best-of-five first-round series against Coulee Region. They rallied to win, then they swept defending national champion Fairbanks 3-0 in the Midwest Division Finals, THEN they swept the NAHL's best regular-season team, Janesville, in the national semifinals.
 
That has set up an all-State of Hockey Robertson Cup. One team will hoist it, either after Saturday's Game 2 or Sunday's if-necessary Game 3.
 
But Game 1 is what's on tap tonight.
 
For the final time this season, let's break down this weekend's series:
 
•••••
 
LINKS FROM THE RINK
 
• Bruins second-year forward Luke Dietsch has battled ups and downs on and off the ice this season. He went through the Bs tough stretch early in the season, and just as the team was starting to turn things around, he found his father, Mark, had been diagnosed with cancer. Click on the link to read my story from Thursday's P-B.
 
Here is my preview, also from Thursday's P-B, of the Robertson Cup Finals.
 
Here is my feature story from today's P-B on Wilderness goalie Brock Kautz, who played one season at Rochester Century, as a sophomore in 2009-10, with his brothers, Brandon and Cory, before leaving for the NAHL. This is Brock's fifth season in the league.
 
• My blog post from yesterday is here, which notes how Bruins coach Chris Tok went about choosing his starting goalie for the decisive Game 3 of the Robertson Cup semis, as well as a note about the great plays Alex Jasiek and Nico Sturm made on the game-winning goal against Lone Star.
 
Jeff Papas, the radio play-by-play voice of Minnesota-Duluth football, wrote a story on the Wilderness for the Cloquet Pine Journal, looking back on their national semifinal victory against Janesville and looking ahead to this weekend's series in Austin.
 
Jamey Malcomb of the Duluth News-Tribune also wrote about Kautz and his struggles with an injury this season in this preview of the Robbie Cup.
 
•••••
 
ROBERTSON CUP FINALS
MINNESOTA WILDERNESS at AUSTIN BRUINS
Best 2 out of 3
At Riverside Arena, Austin
Today: Wilderness at Austin, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Wilderness at Austin, 7:05 p.m.
x-Sunday: Wilderness at Austin, 5:30 p.m.
x--if necessary 
 
•••••
 
THE SERIES
 
Records: Minnesota 39-15-6 reg. season, 47-17-6 overall; Austin 38-11-11 reg. season, 46-14-11 overall.
 
Path to the Robby Cup semisMINNESOTA -- defeated Coulee Region 3-2 in Midwest Division semifinals; defeated Fairbanks 3-0 in Midwest Division Finals; won at Janesville 2-0 in Robertson Cup semifinals. AUSTIN -- defeated Aberdeen 3-0 in Central Division semifinals; defeated Minot 3-2 in Central Division finals; won at Lone Star 2-1 in Robertson Cup semifinals.
 
Head coachesMINNESOTA -- Corey Millen (2nd season, 84-31-15); AUSTIN -- Chris Tok (5th season, 203-107-29).
 
Wilderness' leading scorers (reg. season/overall): F 22-Darian Romanko (31-30--61 / 38-41--79); F 15-Aaron Miller (21-39--60 / 24-49--73); F 26-Tyler Cline (23-22--45 / 28-29--57); D 13-Ivan Chukarov (12-31--43 / 12-37--49); F 19-Michael Covach (15-27--42 / 19-30--49); F 25-Niklas Lehtimaki (20-14--34 / 24-18--42).
 
Wilderness' goalies (reg. season/playoffs): 30-Ryan Anderson (24-7-5, 2.37, .890 / 0-1, 3.09, .846); 1-Brock Kautz (14-8-1, 2.33, .906 / 8-1, 1.85, .931).
 
Bruins leading scorers (reg. season/overall): F Trevor Boyd (26-24--50/30-31--61); F Alex Pettersson (11-32--43/15-39--54); F Nico Sturm (11-30--41/18-36--54); F Luke Dietsch (9-28--37/14-31--45); D Ian Scheid (12-23--35/14-29--43); F Tony Uglem (22-17--39/23-19--42).
 
Bruins goalies (reg. season/playoffs): Jake Kielly (20-5-6, 2.12 GAA, .906 save pct./4-3, 1.97, .912); Evan Smith (12-1-2, 1.73, .923/4-0, 2.70, .894).
 
•••••
 
TALE OF THE TAPE
 
Records (reg. season/playoffs): Minnesota 39-15-6, 8-2 (47-17-6 overall); Austin 38-11-11, 8-3-0 (46-14-11 overall).
Advantage: Bruins
 
Head-to-head: Austin 5-2-1, Wilderness 3-2-3.
Advantage: Bruins
 
Offense: Minnesota 251 goals in 70 games (3.59/game); Austin 250 goals in 71 games (3.52/game).
Advantage: Wilderness
 
Defense: Minnesota 173 goals allowed in 70 games (2.47/game); Austin 162 goals allowed in 71 games (2.28/game).
Advantage: Bruins
 
Power play (NAHL rank)Minnesota -- reg. season 59-246 (23.98 pct., 2nd in NAHL); postseason 9-30 (30.0 pct., 5th in NAHL); overall 68-276 (24.6 pct.). Austin -- reg. season 38-268 (14.18 pct., 19th in NAHL); postseason 10-25 (40.0 pct., 1st in NAHL); total 48-293 (16.4 pct.).
Advantage: Wilderness
 
Penalty kill (NAHL rank)Minnesota -- reg. season 203-249 (81.5 pct., 15th in NAHL); playoffs 32-33 (96.97 pct., 2nd in NAHL); overall 235-282 (83.3 pct.). Austin -- reg. season 248-275 (90.18 pct., 1st in NAHL); playoffs 32-38 (84.21 pct., 9th in NAHL); total 280-313 (89.5 pct.).
Advantage: Bruins
 
Goaltending (save pct.)Minnesota -- reg. season .890; playoffs .919; overall .895. Austin -- reg. season .907, playoffs .900, overall .906.
Advantage: Bruins
 
•••••
 
THE CALL
 
The stats breakdown points toward the Bruins winning. Having watched these teams, logic points toward a toss-up series, just like last weekend's national semifinals.
 
The Bs and Wilderness were evenly matched during the regular season, with four of their eight meetings going to overtime or a shootout. When the Wilderness swept the Bs in Cloquet in November, Austin was struggling. When the Bs swept the Wilderness at Riverside in mid-March, the Wilderness were struggling. 
 
In the words of Red Wing High School girls hockey coach Scott Haley, this time of year your team's "big knockers gotta knock." (And, yes, I'm going to use that quote over and over and over as long as I write about hockey ... the media hopes Haley never leaves. He's a quote machine).
 
Those top guns from each team were the ones who did most of the scoring in the regular season meetings.
 
Austin's leading scorer Trevor Boyd averaged a point per game against the Wilderness this season (5-3--8), while forwards Alex Pettersson and Nico Sturm both had six points (both had 0-6--6).
 
Gophers commit Darian Romanko (3-3--6), Bemidji State commit Aaron Miller (3-3--6) and defenseman Janis Jaks (0-6--6) shared the scoring lead for the Wilderness against the Bruins this season. Jaks is the lone surprise of the group, as he had just 13 points in the regular season, nearly half of them coming in eight games against Austin.
 
In other words, when the top lines are on the ice, don't take your eyes off the game. 
 
I've been trying to filibuster here, hoping this gets me to 7:05 and I wouldn't have to  give a prediction. But I can't write for five more hours, so here goes...
 
The Wilderness have been red-hot, winning eight in a row. I think they stretch that streak to nine tonight, considering the talent they have and the fact that Austin hasn't been very good in series-opening games on its home ice the past two years. BUT, this Bruins team has been proving doubters wrong all season. It hasn't always been pretty, but they keep finding ways to win.
 
The last team to appear in back-to-back Robbie Cup Finals was the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in 2010 and 2011. The Ice Dogs lost to Bismarck in 2010 then won it in '11. I think the Bs match that trend this weekend.
 
The call: Austin in 3 (Game 1: Minnesota 4, Austin 2; Game 2: Austin 5, Minnesota 3; Game 3: Austin 4, Minnesota 3, OT).

May 08, 2015

Junior Hockey | The Austin Bruins have come a long way to reach the Robertson Cup semifinals

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:
 
• My feature story on Bruins forward Nico Sturm, whose improvement has mirrored the team's in the second half of the season
 
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.
 
• The Robertson Cup Semifinals preview from NAHL.com, which notes that the Austin Bruins are the lone team returning to the national semifinals from a year ago.
 
• 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
Today: Austin at Lone Star, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday: Austin at Lone Star, 6:30 p.m.
x-Sunday: Austin at Lone Star, 5:30 pm
x--if necessary 
 
•••••
 
THE SERIES
 
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).
Advantage: Brahmas
 
Head-to-head: Have not met this season.
Advantage: even
 
Offense: Austin 243 goals in 68 games (3.57/game); Lone Star 227 in 67 games (3.39/game)
Advantage: Bruins
 
Defense: Austin 156 goals allowed in 68 games (2.29/game); Lone Star 146 in 67 games (2.18/game)
Advantage: Brahmas
 
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.).
Advantage: Brahmas
 
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.).
Advantage: Bruins
 
Goaltending (save pct.): Austin -- reg. season .907, playoffs .899, overall .906; Lone Star -- reg. season .910; playoffs .918; overall .911.
Advantage: Brahmas
 
•••••
 
THE CALL
 
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)

May 05, 2015

Bruins end Minot's season, begin pursuit of Robby; local players selected in USHL Draft

AUSTIN -- Win or lose, good or bad, this Austin Bruins team is determined to give its fans heart attacks.

Monday night, the heart attacks were rewarded with a no-fingernails-left victory and another banner to add to the south wall at Riverside Arena.

The Bs built a 4-1 lead against Minot with a dominant second period in the decisive Game 5 of the NAHL Central Division Finals. Then they nearly gave it away in the third. Minot scored twice in the first 6:18 of the third and had a handful of other very good chances, but couldn't get another past Bruins goalie Jake Kielly (18 saves) and Austin survived with a 4-3 victory and a second consecutive trip to the Robertson Cup semifinals.

The Bs will have a quick turnaround, leaving Wednesday for Dallas suburb North Richland Hills. They'll open play in the best-of-3 national semifinals against the Lone Star Brahmas on Friday. Games 1 and 2 are set for 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. A Game 3, if necessary, is at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

But back to Monday night. For a second consecutive year, Austin earned its way into the Robby Cup final four. 

Game 5 was everything we thought we'd get out of this series. I thought we'd see at least one game go to OT, and Monday's game nearly did. Here's my game story from today's P-B

The Bs opened up a 4-1 lead in the second period when Nico Sturm, Josh Wilkins and Trevor Boyd scored in a flurry of goals in a span of 5 minutes, 34 seconds. Bs captain Brian Bachnak assisted on all three. The Boyd goal was the big one; it felt like a backbreaker at the time. It started when Minot goalie Atte Tolvanen stopped a Bachnak shot, but Boyd was trailing the play. He picked up the puck and made a nice, patient move to get Tolvanen out of position, then tucked the puck into an empty side of the goal.

True to form in this series, though, Minot battled back, scoring twice in the first seven minutes of the third to pull within 4-3. 

From there, it was some really good back and forth hockey. Both teams missed on more than one quality scoring chance. Alex Jasiek had a really good look from close range that Tolvanen sticked aside. More than once, the puck was lying loose in the crease and no Bs player could get a stick on it. 

Minot had its chances, too. The Tauros couldn't have asked for a better chance at the end of the game. They went on a power play for the final 1:25 and were 6-on-4 for all of that time, with Tolvanen pulled. Defenseman Jon Lizotte had the best looks, zipping a wrister high with 35 seconds left, then having a wrist shot swallowed up by Jake Kielly with 17 seconds left. 

HEADING TO TEXAS

The win is the 44th of the season for the Bruins and the 201st in franchise history. This team could tie last year's Bs team for the franchise record for wins in a season (48) if it captures the Robertson Cup championship.

That won't be an easy task. 

The Bs leave Wednesday on a flight to Dallas. They'll get a practice in on Thursday and (I'm assuming) a morning skate in on Friday, then (as I mentioned earlier) they'll face the South Division champion Lone Star at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Games 1 and 2. Game 3 is at 5:30 Sunday, if needed.

Strictly looking at records, Lone Star and Austin were about even during the regular season. The Brahmas were 40-12-8 in the regular season, for 88 points. The Bruins were 38-11-11, for 87 points. In other words, had the Bruins gone 5-6 in shootouts this season, as opposed to 3-8, they'd be playing at Riverside this weekend -- and I'd be saying "if Lone Star had just won one more game, this series would be in Texas."

Such is life in the NAHL, and it's why coaches stress all season long that every point is valuable. It may not seem like it when a team wins a division title by seven points, but when you get to this stage of the season, something as simple as two shootout losses can turn a potential home series into a 900-mile roadie.

Either way, the Bs are ecstatic to be able to keep playing. This was their goal since Labor Day, when players began reporting for this season. 

A PEEK AT THE BRAHMAS

We'll break down the Robby Cup semifinal series later this week, but here's a quick look at this weekend's opponent.

The obvious starting point is that the Bruins have to know where No. 22 is at all times.

That's Sebastian Vidmar, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, 21-year-old forward from Malmo, Sweden. He's committed to 2014 NCAA national champion Union College.

Oh, by the way, Vidmar was the MVP of the entire NAHL this season, putting up 35 goals and 80 points in 58 games. He has two goals and seven points through seven postseason games. His regular-season numbers are the best in the league since the 2011-12 season. He also had a league-high 11 game-winning goals, the highest total in the league in seven years. He was named the NAHL Forward of the Month twice this season and has 105 points in 100 career regular-season games.

The Brahmas are coached by Dan Wildfong, the NAHL Coach of the Year. He guided Lone Star to a 26-3-1 home record (good thing the Bruins are a good road team) and has nine players committed to Division I schools.

Lone Star had three players record 21 or more goals -- Vidmar, fellow Swede Ludvig Larson, a Merrimack College commit (21-34--55) and Colorado College recruit AJ Vanderbeck (21-14--35).

In goal, another Union College recruit, Jake Kupsky, has taken control of the starting job in the postseason after splitting time almost equally with T.J. Black in the regular season.

Kupsky has the size (6-5, 210) to match both of the Bruins' goalies. In the regular season he was 19-4-4, with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. He is 5-1, 1.67, .936 in the playoffs.

All of those things considered, Lone Star hasn't been blowing out opponents in the playoffs. It is 6-1, but five of its victories have come by just one goal, while the sixth victory was a two-goal win with an empty-netter in the final 40 seconds.

Again, we'll have more on the Bruins-Brahmas series later this week in print and on the blog. 

----------

LOCAL PLAYERS SELECTED IN USHL DRAFT

As I write this, Phase II of the USHL Draft is nearly halfway complete, in round 12 of 27.

So far, three Austin Bruins have been selected.

Defenseman Ian Scheid was the highest-drafted Bruin, going No. 20 overall (4th pick of Round 2) to the Fargo Force.

Nine picks later, No. 29 overall (13th pick of Round 2), Rochester Century/Austin Bruins defenseman Riese Zmolek was picked by the Cedar Rapids Roughriders.

Bs forward Nico Sturm was selected in Round 5, No. 72 overall, by the Tri-City Storm.

In Phase I of the USHL Draft on Monday -- for '99 birth year players -- Rochester John Marshall standout Cory Checco was selected by the Sioux Falls Stampede. Checco has had two very good seasons, and I'm told was very good at the recent Final 54 tournament. He was JM's leading scorer this season with 15-16--31 in 26 games for the 13-13 Rockets.

----------

That's it for now; I'll update this post if more players with local ties are taken in today's USHL Draft.

April 26, 2015

Bear Tracks | Austin Bruins pull even in Central Division Finals

Posted by: Feldman
 
We have a playoff series.
 
Through six periods of the NAHL Central Division Finals, very little separates the top-seeded Austin Bruins and the second-seeded Minot Minotauros. 
 
And now the dislike that inevitably develops during a drawn-out series between two evenly matched teams is showing through.
 
Minot and Austin will head to Minot for Games 3 and 4 of the best-of-5 series on Friday and Saturday with the series tied 1-1. Austin rebounded from a 3-2 loss in Game 1 with a 4-1 victory in Game 2 on Saturday at Riverside Arena.
 
Good afternoon from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where Game 6 of the Minnesota Wild-St. Louis Blues series is underway. I'm playing catch-up on the Bruins Blog now, as sleep sounded better at 2 a.m. after writing a story for the Minot Daily News and this game story for the P-B.
 
As I said, we have a playoff series now in the Central Division Finals. Minot figuratively punched Austin in the mouth in Friday's Game 1. Punches were flying for real by the third period of Saturday's Game 2.
 
There was agitation -- to put it mildly -- on both sides Saturday. For the most part, Austin did a good job of ignoring the garbage Minot was throwing out there after the Bruins built a 3-0 lead 17:36 into the game. Forward, and assistant captain, Johnny Walker was the lead instigator for the Minotauros. But much like Steve Ott against the Wild, the Bruins did a pretty good job of turning away from Minot's junk. 
 
The exception was a double-minor that Zach Kennedy took late in the third period, giving the Tauros four minutes of power-play time that really could have swung the game. The Bruins held a 3-1 lead with 7:41 to go when Kennedy took four minutes of penalties. He slashed Minot's Mitch Snyder, then as Snyder was laying on the ice, Kennedy dropped his gloves, bent over and grabbed Snyder's jersey. At that point, it was like something went off in his head -- "I shouldn't be doing this" -- and he appeared to back off just as a linesman arrived to pull him away. He received two minutes for the slash and two for unsportsmanlike conduct.
 
Bruins coach Chris Tok didn't name names, but he noted "one guy stood up in the locker room and apologized to his teammates for his actions." I'll read between the lines and assume he's talking about Kennedy.
 
Quite frankly, it's hard to blame Kennedy for letting the frustration get to him in the moment. Minot's Walker was playing like a goon for good portions of the game, chasing Bruins players around the ice and running goalie Evan Smith in the third period, and defenseman Jared Brandt was throwing high elbows and crosschecks at Bruins players in the third.
 
Minot was not happy Friday night with the way Austin was crashing to the net and making contact with Tauros goalie Atte Tolvanen. I think the Tauros had a legit gripe on at least one occasion, when Tolvanen got sprayed in the face well after he covered a puck and a whistle blew.
 
This is playoff hockey, though. Both of these teams are battling for their seasons and, really, they're almost clones of one another. Neither team is willing to give an inch. That's going to make for some physical play and it certainly makes for a fun, entertaining series to watch.
 
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FIVE THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEKEND
 
1. Evan Smith -- The Bruins offense gave Smith a 3-0 lead after one period and he more than held his own, and made the score hold up. His three quick saves on Tauros forward James Mathias 5:45 into the second period were difference-makers. Mathias was all alone at the top of the crease. He had the puck and tried three quick stuff attempts, but Smith kicked his left pad out each time and turned Mathias away. Smith denied Mathias again about six minutes later, when Mathias had the puck on the doorstep on a power play and Smith made another big pad save. Smith was shaky in his first playoff start -- an 8-5 win against Aberdeen 22 days earlier in the first game of the first-round playoff series. But he showed no signs of rust on Saturday, making the first save and not allowing any bad rebounds. He covered pucks when he needed to and directed his rebounds into safe areas where the Tauros couldn't capitalize. I'd guess he starts Game 3 on Friday in Minot, but the Bs have two goalies playing very well, so there's no right or wrong decision about who to start in net.
 
2. Johnny Walker -- I've seen the Tauros captain play a few times and, when he wants to play hockey, he's a pretty darn good player. The problem is he was way more goon than playmaker on Saturday. His schtick is old and we're two games into the series. Twice he was knocked down, got up and chose to pick on the nearest player in a Bruins sweater. The first time it was Bruins' D-man Cory Dunn, the smallest guy on the ice. Walker played tough guy by getting right in Dunn's face behind the play and skating stride for stride up the ice with him, barking right in Dunn's face the whole way. The next time Walker was knocked down, he got up and chased Luke Forfar (I believe it was Luke; I couldn't see the Bs player's number to be sure) across the ice as Forfar was just trying to get off for a change. Walker cross-checked him, then forearmed him in the back. On top of that, I got a kick out of the two times Walker was knocked down and decided to lay on the ice for a good 20-30 seconds, well after play was stopped. He had no trouble popping up either time and skating back to the bench. He barked at the officials the whole way. They didn't buy his act, either. We'll see if a home-ice crowd in Minot changes that. The Bruins took a page from the Minnesota Wild in their series against the Blues, and chose to laugh or smile right back at Walker when he opened his mouth to chirp, which was pretty much every second he was on the ice. Bruins players and coaches had some good comments about Walker's, uh, style of play, that you can read below. 
 
3. Bruins' P.K. -- Austin had the best penalty kill in the NAHL during the regular season and nothing has changed now. Minot was a combined 0-for-9 on the power play in the first two games of the series, including an 0-for-6 effort Saturday. Smith was a big factor in that. He was squared up to Minot shooters all night and anticipated their puck movement extremely well. A couple of times, Bruins players were caught out of position, but Smith had their backs. That's why Austin's P.K. has been so good all season (it was the only team in the NAHL to be better than 90 percent on the P.K. in the regular season), all three of its goalies are very good in penalty kill situations. The Bruins also did a much better job of blocking shots on Saturday. I don't chart those numbers, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was in the 20s.
 
4. Evenly matched -- Through six periods this series is as evenly matched as we expected it to be. Both teams absolutely dominated one period over the weekend -- Minot controlled the second period Friday, Austin the first period on Saturday. But the similarities are many. Both teams have quality goalies -- Atte Tolvanen for Minot, Jake Kielly and Evan Smith for Austin. Both teams are deep up front and on the blue line, and both teams are strong on the penalty kill. The Bruins and Tauros both play strong defensive games, which should be no surprise considering Austin gave up the third-fewest goals in the NAHL this season (136), while Minot was right behind in fourth (137).
 
5. Top lines -- This was definitely the difference on Saturday. Minot had no answer for Austin's top line in the first period. Luke DietschTrevor Boyd and Alex Jasiek blew the doors off Riverside Arena in the first 20 minutes. They accounted for two of the team's first three goals and created multiple other chances. They were creating odd-man chances just off their puck movement in the zone. By contrast, Minot's top line didn't seem to much of a factor all weekend. The only time I noticed Tauros forward Blake Lizotte -- the Central Division Forward of the Year -- was in warmups, or when I looked for him specifically. He's too good of a player to keep down long. I'd be shocked if he doesn't have an impact in Game 3 or 4. That said, Minot showed its depth in Game 1, winning without a goal from its top line.
 
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THEY SAID IT...
 
Comments from Bruins coach Chris Tok, goalie Evan Smith, defenseman Cory Dunn and Tauros coach Marty Murray that didn't get into the game story.
 
BRUINS COACH CHRIS TOK
 
The physical play in the contest...
 
One guy stepped up in the room there and apologized for his actions. For the most part, I like the way the guys stay composed and stuck together. Basically what they've been saying is this is a group of brothers, a family.
 
On Tauros forward Johnny Walker and his play...
 
We've been talking about him for two weeks. The four games we played against them early in the season he was a major factor in causing us to not be intelligent against him. That's what he's gonna do, that's his M.O. Running the goalie? That's him. Cross-checking guys in the head? That's how he plays the game. We know that. Retaliating against him, that's not important. What's important is winning the game. Standing up for your brother, there will be a time and place.
 
How big was getting the 1st goal tonight?
 
I think that was great for our guys' momentum. We might have had a little hesitation in their brains, you know, thinking 'hey, can we get this done?' To get that quick goal, it gave us a lot of life and the guys kept saying 'we're not going to be denied. They're not going to stop us tonight.'"
 
Thoughts on goalie Evan Smith's play?
 
Especially in second period, in one sequence he made those four left-pad saves in a row -- bam-bam-bam-bam. He was able to keep himself big and they couldn't shoot anywhere else. It was a key turning point in the game. Then he got ran in the third period and got a little feisty, which is OK, but we want to make sure he focuses on stopping the puck, which he did for the most part tonight.
 
Killing the 5-on-3...
 
It was huge. They had a 5-on-3 and made some good saves. He didn't give up a ton of rebounds. Anytime the puck came near him, he did a pretty good job of freezing it. When you're on a penalty kill that helps a lot so you can get some fresh guys out there.
 
How do you keep up this urgency going into Minot?
 
We haven't accomplished anything. We tied the series. We don't have home-ice (advantage). We're right there, we've been in this position before. As long as our guys play the way they did in the first period tonight, we'll be happy.
 
What type of environment do you expect up there?
 
It'll be pretty rowdy. I looked at their crowd on some video (from the first-round series against Bismarck), it was a jam-packed place. I think 1,500 people, similar to what we have here. They had to bring the security behind Minot's bench tonight. The only good thing is there are no stands behind our bench. They have a pretty ruckus crowd. They've never been in this position before in franchise history, so it's a pretty big deal.
 
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BRUINS D CORY DUNN
 
On Minot's Johnny Walker...
 
We know that's his game. His game is to try to get under our skin, try to get us off our game and take stupid penalties. All week, coach Tok and Huff were kind of joking with us, calling us 'Johnny Walker, Johnny Walker' to kind of get us ready for the weekend. It sounds funny, but we all told our teammates just to smile. Nothing (ticks) someone off more than when they're beaking you trying to get a response and all you do is smile back at them. For the most part we didn't give them any time of day to get under our skin.
 
Thoughts on the physical play in the series?
 
In a playoff series, that's always a huge part. It's a long series, so every hit on the body is wear and tear. We harp on finishing every check throughout the series and try to wear them down.
 
How big was the first goal?
 
It was huge. We were pretty upset last night and knew that made today's game even bigger and we needed (to win). To come out with fire and pop a couple in right away was really big.
 
Play of Evan Smith in goal?
 
He played great. There were a couple times where we were scrambling in our own end, especially on the penalty kill and I don't know how, but he found a way to get his body in front of the puck. And if he wasn't blocking the puck, it was other players laying out to block shots.
 
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BRUINS GOALIE EVAN SMITH
 
Killing the 5x3 up 3-1...
 
It was a time where they could've grabbed some momentum if they scored. For the entire team, it was a time to dig deep, block some shots, get in the way and kill this off. We didn't want them to get the momentum there.
 
Thoughts on Minot's play, being physical with you?
 
It's something you have to think about, but you can't let them get in your head. You just have to let them hit you, shake it off and get back at them on the scoreboard.
 
What does it do for you as a goalie when you see teammates selling out to block shots?
 
It just shows that the rest of the team has bought in to what we want to do. It makes you feel like we've really come together as a team and it makes you want to play hard for that guy as much as he does for you. It drives me to be as good of a goalie as I can be.
 
Level of urgency for this team in Game 2?
 
We came out flying, had our feet moving from Minute 1, got the three early goals and held onto it.
 
Getting first goal?
 
It shows that this is what's it going to be like and this is what it needs to be. It builds the momentum right up front. To get that goal to give you the lead, you don't want to lose it.
 
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TAUROS COACH MARTY MURRAY
 
What was the difference from the first period to the final two on Saturday?
 
We talked about it. We knew they were going to come out strong. They didn't think they worked very hard (Friday) night. We knew they were going to come out charging and we weren't ready for it. It was boys against men in the first period. They took it to us in every facet of the game. We got what we deserved in the first. For the last 40 (minutes), we played pretty solid hockey, but you can't be down 3-0 after one.
 
Thoughts on going home with the series tied 1-1?
 
If you could draw it up and say you get a split, you'd be somewhat happy with it, but we've been in this situation the last two years, getting a split here, then we didn't respond well enough at home. I'd like to think our group this year has a little more character than we've had in the past, but we know it's not going to be easy. It's going to be a battle.

April 24, 2015

Bear Tracks: The Division Finals begin for the Austin Bruins

Posted by: Feldman

Good afternoon from casa de Feldy. I meant to have this done last night, but kids have a way of pushing my work timeline back. At least I'm hitting "publish" on this post a good 3 1/2 hours before puck drop. That feels like an accomplishment!

I'll be SpamTown-bound in less than two hours to watch Game 1 of what should be a hard-fought and entertaining NAHL Central Division Finals playoff series.

The Minot Minotauros (40-17-6) and Austin Bruins (41-11-11) are pretty much mirror images. Great coaching staffs on both sides. Balanced, deep lineups on both sides. Both teams like to play a physical, gritty style of hockey. As Bs forward Luke Dietsch put it to me a few days ago, the defensemen in this series will have fun standing out at the point and bombing away, then it's up to the forwards out front to win some battles and get some greasy goals.

Before we get too far into the series, here a few links to stories to check out when you have some time:

ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN

* Bruins coaches could be in their final run with the team (we'll get more into this shortly)

* Series preview: Bruins ready for all-out battle against Minot

MINOT DAILY NEWS

* Veteran coaches have been key to Tauros' success

Also, for Minot's perspective on the series, follow the Minot Daily News' Tauros beat writer Joe Mellenbruch at @Mellenbruch_MDN

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COACHING QUESTIONS

As far as what's happening with the Bruins coaches, let's keep this short, because it's time to focus on a huge series for the Bs and Tauros. Many things have been reported in the past few days. All we can do as reporters is report what's been told to us on the record. That said, some things have been put out there that aren't accurate.

I'll stand by what was written in the story linked above and the couple of tweets that I put out there on Wednesday.

Here's what I'd say: Go back and read the initial tweets put out by Andy Johnson, a USHL and NAHL scout who, until recently was also the main University of WIsconsin writer/reporter for Bucky's 5th Quarter, a website dedicated to Badgers athletics. Andy knows his stuff and he takes a lot of pride in being correct. The only thing I have been told is that Brookings' Kyle Grabowski has not yet been offered the coaching job, though he did interview for it.

I can't get Andy's initial tweets to embed, so here are links to them:

1. The initial tweet that got the ball rolling

2. The follow-up tweet

3. First time Grabowski's name was brought into this

I'll add this: I've never met or communicated with Kyle Grabowski and didn't intend for anything I've written to reflect negatively upon him. He, or whoever ends up being the next coach of the Bruins, has a tough act to follow. With as competitive as the NAHL has become, you can't just throw a team on the ice and expect to win. You have to be willing to work, or at least be on call, 24/7, 365. To win, you have to turn over rocks that other scouts don't even know are there. I'll have a story next week in the P-B, leading into Games 3 and 4 of the Minot-Austin series, addressing just how hard it is to win in the NAHL these days.

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Let's move on to some hockey, eh?

NAHL CENTRAL DIVISION FINAL SERIES
AUSTIN BRUINS vs. MINOT MINOTAUROS

Schedule
Game 1: 7:05 p.m. tonight, at Austin
Game 2: 7:05 p.m. Saturday, at Austin
Game 3: 7:35 p.m. May 1, at Minot
* Game 4: 7:35 p.m., May 2, at Minot
* Game 5: 7:05 p.m., May 4, at Austin
* -- if necessary

Records: Minot (37-17-6 reg. season, 2nd in Central, 40-17-6 overall); Austin (38-11-11, Division champs, 41-11-11 overall)

Path to the Division Finals: (2) Minot swept (3) Bismarck, 3-0; (1) Austin swept (4) Aberdeen, 3-0.

Head coaches: Minot, Marty Murray (3rd season, 92-86-13 overall); Austin, Chris Tok (5th season, 198-104-29 overall)

Tauros leading scorers (reg ssn/playoffs): F Blake Lizotte (14-38--52/0-3--3); F Christian Mohs (18-33--51/1-1--2); F Johnny Walker (20-22--42/1-1--2); D Jon Lizotte (10-24--34/0-1--1); F Nick Monfils (15-16--31/3-0--3).

Tauros goalies (reg ssn/playoffs): Atte Tolvanen (26-13-6, 1.94 GAA, .922 save pct. / 3-0, 1.33, .937)

Bruins leading scorers (reg ssn/playoffs): F Trevor Boyd (26-24--50/1-3--4); F Alex Pettersson (11-32--43/0-3--3); F Nico Sturm (11-30--41/4-0--4); F Tony Uglem (22-17--39/1-2--3); F Luke Dietsch (9-28--37/2-1--3); D Ian Scheid (12-23--35/2-0--2).

Bruins goalies: Jake Kielly (20-5-6, 2.12 GAA, .906 save pct. / 2-0, 1.50, .927); Evan Smith (12-1-2, 1.73, .923 / 1-0, 5.00, .800).

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TALE OF THE TAPE

Records (reg ssn/playoffs): Minot (37-17-6 / 3-0-0); Austin (38-11-11 / 3-0-0)
Advantage: Bruins

Head-to-head (points earned): Minot 4-0-0 (8); Austin 0-1-3 (3).
Advantage: Tauros

Offense: Minot 3.07 goals per game; Austin 3.50 goals per game
Advantage: Bruins

Defense: Minot 2.28 goals allowed per game; Austin 2.27 goals allowed per game
Advantage: Bruins

Power play (NAHL rank): Aberdeen 15.0 pct. (15); Austin 14.2 pct. (19).
Advantage: Tauros

Penalty kill (NAHL rank): Minot 87.02 pct. (4); Austin 90.18 pct. (1).
Advantage: Bruins

Goaltending (save pct.): Minot .909; Austin .907.
Advantage: Tauros

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SERIES NOTES

Former Mankato West defenseman Max Mettler is in his first season with Minot. He has 3-9--12 in 49 games this season. He has no points in the playoffs, but has a plus-4 plus/minus ratio. ... Tauros goalie Atte Tolvanen is a Northern Michigan commit and was named the Central Division MVP and Goalie of the Year earlier this week. ... The Tauros have two other players committed to D-1 schools. Leading scorer Blake Lizotte and top defenseman Jon Lizotte have committed to St. Cloud State. ... Amazingly, despite losing all but five players from last year's Robertson Cup finals team, the Bruins scored 21 more goals in the regular season this year (210) than last year (189) during the regular season. ... While Austin is a remarkable 24-3-3 since Jan. 1, Minot is 19-9-3 in that same span, including just 6-4-0 in its final 10 regular-season games. ... The Bruins have lost just once in regulation since Feb. 13. ... The Tauros are slightly better on the road (22-7-2) than at home (18-10-4) this season, including the playoffs. The Bruins are 22-4-6 at home and 19-7-5 on the road.

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THE CALL

Austin has this strange history of struggling in the first games of series on its home ice. The Bruins were outplayed in every way in a loss to Minot in Game 1 of an opening-round series last year. The Bruins had to rally to escape with a win in Game 1 against Aberdeen a few weeks ago. They cannot have that kind of a letdown tonight. I could sense it coming against Aberdeen, when players and coaches said they were too lax in practice leading up to the game. There's none of that this week. Despite the strange situation surrounding the team's coaches and their status for next year, when I was at practices this week, the players seemed more business-like than I've seen them all season. 
 
Minot is no pushover. In fact, this series, in my opinion, could very well be tougher than the series the winner will have in the Robertson Cup semifinals. And that's no knock on any other team around the league. Minot and Austin are playing extremely well right now. I expect a grind-it-out five-gamer, and I'll take the Bruins to close it out on home ice on May 4. I also have a feeling we'll see one game that's totally out of the norm for both teams, just because they always seem to have one of those.
 
THE CALL -- Austin 3, Minot 2 (Game 1: Austin 3, Minot 1. Game 2: Minot 4, Austin 2. Game 3: Austin 6, Minot 5. Game 4: Minot 2, Austin 1. Game 5: Austin 3, Minot 2).