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37 posts categorized "NAHL"

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.

March 27, 2014

Austin Bruins getting healthy at right time

Posted by: Feldman

The Austin Bruins have two games remaining in their regular season and eight days until the North American Hockey League playoffs begin.

Now is a good time for a team that has battled injuries all year to get healthy.

It's been weeks -- months, maybe -- since the Bs have had their full 23-man roster available on game day. I'm guessing coaches Chris Tok, Jamie Huffman and Keaton Wolf would probably share their meals with Bruiser the bear for a month if they could make three healthy scratches per night this weekend at Bismarck, where Austin will close its regular season (7:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday).

There have been times this season when the Bruins haven't been able to dress a full 20-player lineup. That shouldn't be the case this weekend, though the Bs will likely only have 21 of their 23 men avaialable. Tok said a couple of players sustained injuries last weekend against Bismarck during a split at Riverside Arena, and have tried to skate this week, but haven't been able to go full-speed.

Ideally, this would be the time of year where some Bruins players could sit out a game or two and be more rested for the start of the postseason. The Bruins wrapped up the regular season division title with a few weeks to go in the regular season last year and were able to do that with players such as A.J. Reid, Brandon Wahlin and Cody Dixon.

Austin doesn't have the luxury of resting guys this season, as it will likely battle with Aberdeen down to the final night for the division title. The Bruins have a one-point lead in the standings (77-76), so an Austin win on Friday, coupled with an Aberdeen loss at Wenatchee (Wash.) would give the Bruins the title.

Still, though, like I said before, the Bruins will likely only have 21 players available this weekend, and that's because they will get Sam Kauppila, Trey Dodd and Austin Nelson back from injuries.

Those three guys will be a big shot in the arm to Austin's offense.

Dodd has 17 points in 43 games, but has only played in four games since Valentine's Day.

Kauppila, who played for the NAHL U18 team at the Top Prospects Tournament, has 15 points in 41 games, but has been hasn't played since a 2-1 victory against Aberdeen on Feb. 21.

NELSON HAS PERSEVERED

As for Nelson, it's nice to see him back in the lineup and I know the Bruins' coaching staff is happy for him personally and happy for themselves that he's returning. Nelson has 15 points in 38 games this season, but he has sat out the last two weekends after he thought his Bruins career might be over.

Nelson, a third-year Bruin, missed 48 games last season after tearing the labrum in his right hip (Rochester hockey fans may remember this is the same injury that essentially ended Century grad Alex Kangas' college career with the Gophers).

During the Bruins' game at Minot on March 7, Nelson thought he had suffered the same injury to his other hip. He spent a long day-and-a-half thinking his time with the Bruins might be done. On Monday, March 9 -- his 21st birthday -- Nelson saw a doctor and, this time, received good news: He didn't suffer a torn labrum.

It was not only a relief for Nelson, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound forward from Hastings, but it was a relief for the Bruins coaching staff (and probably fans, too). Nelson will now get to end his junior hockey career on the ice, instead of in the stands.

"Austin has had some difficult times over the past couple of years, but he has really stuck with it," Tok said.

I was somewhat surprised to see that Nelson was back this season, not because I didn't think he could play at this level, but because it would be easy to understand why someone with his injury history would want to call it a career.

"I was a little surprised (at the start of the season) when he said he wanted to come back," Tok said. "I said 'great, we'd love to have you.' He's a great kid, on and off the ice."

Nelson has played in 103 games as a Bruin, with 20 goals and 21 assists.

FRONT-TO-BACK, BACK-TO-FRONT

With all of the injuries the Bruins have battled this season, the coaching staff has had to juggle forward lines and defensive pairs more than they would have liked. 

Sometimes those changes stick, sometimes they don't.

At least a couple of those changes have worked out quite well -- the move of Eli May from defense to forward, and the move of Lucas Kohls from forward to defense. May gives the Bruins another gritty forward who will get in the corners on the forecheck and win puck battles. He can also shift back to the point on the power play, as well as play on the penalty kill. Kohls has 33 points this season, but he gives Austin a big body on the blue line (he's 6-3, 195) who has a lot of offensive skill.

"Eli brings a lot to the table up front," Tok said. "He gets in there and creates turnovers. We had him in more of a defensive/checking-line role, but he created so many turnovers that we put him up with some other guys."

Tok said he anticipates May and Kohls staying in their current roles throughout the playoffs.

THIS WEEKEND

Austin (38-19-1, 77 pts.) at Bismarck (31-22-5, 67 pts.) -- Friday and Saturday, 7:15 p.m., VFW Sports Center, Bismarck

Bruins notes: Austin's power play has struggled all season. The Bruins are ranked No. 22 in the NAHL, converting at an 11.3 percent clip. ... The Bruins, however, have one of the top penalty-kills in the league. They are ranked No. 2 in the NAHL, killing 90.5 percent of their penalties. ... Austin has played 58 games this season and 17 have been decided by just one goal. The Bruins, though, have gone to OT just five times this year. They have two OT wins and are 2-1 in shootouts.

Bobcats notes: Bismarck is locked into the No. 3 spot in the Central Division playoffs and will face either Austin or Aberdeen in the opening round. ... The Bobcats are in the middle of the pack in the NAHL in both power-play (14.3 pct., No. 15 overall) and penalty kill (85.0 pct., No. 11 overall). ... Bismarck G Aaron Nelson, a MSU Mankato commit, has three shutouts this season, all against Austin (including a 1-0 blanking last Saturday in Austin). ... D Nate Repensky is the team's leading scorer with 49 points. He is committed to Yale.

Path to No. 1: There are many ways Austin could win its second consecutive division title. The simplest would be to beat Bismarck twice this weekend. NAHL teams get two points for a win, one for a tie. Four points are up for grabs this weekend for first-place Austin and second-place Aberdeen (which plays at Wenatchee at 9:05 p.m. CDT Friday and Saturday). The Bruins need to earn one more point than Aberdeen this weekend to win the division title outright.

January 10, 2014

Ice Time | Friday, Jan. 10

Posted by: Feldman So we're a week and a half into this new year; it's time to get the blog fired up again since I've been slacking all hockey season. I'll try to put something new up here each day, whether it's about the local high school teams, the Austin Bruins (I'll leave Ice Hawks notes to Phersy; he's all on top of that beat and I don't see them play often enough), former Rochester players who have moved on to juniors, college or pros, or maybe just some random thoughts on the Wild or NHL or college hockey. Whatever it may be, I'll try to have something fresh up here as often as possible. I have high school hockey on the brain right now, so let's get to it: * Rochester Century: The Panthers took one on the chin on Thursday night, a 12-0 loss to No. 6-ranked Lakeville North. But, at least from what I observed, it's not as bad as that score may indicate. For one thing, North piled on six goals in the third period, including four after Century made a goalie change. Not that North shouldn't have kept playing hard -- they are relentless on the forecheck and every bit deserving of their top-10 ranking in the state -- but when you get down 6-0 after two like Century did, then it climbs to 7 or 8 and keeps going, it's easy to sort of shut down. Century can take a couple of positive things out of the loss, though. First, if Century wants to make a run in the postseason, it's going to have to meet North again at some point. Aside from Lakeville South, Century is the only team in Section 1AA that will have faced North in the regular season. Century knows exactly what to expect and how hard it'll have to play if they meet North again. Second, from what I've seen of this Century team, it's not afraid to be physical and match opponents when it comes to hitting and battling in the corners and in front of the net. I also like to see that star defenseman Riese Zmolek has the green light to jump into the offensive play, and not only does he take advantage of those situations where he can join the rush, but his teammates are aware that he can and will do that and they cover for him defensively. Things don't get much easier for the Panthers, who are still unbeaten in Big Nine COnference play. They'll face Mankato West, the conference co-leader, on Saturday at the Rec Center. Speaking of West ... * Rochester Mayo: Mayo showed that it is among the best in the Big Nine on Thursday, playing West -- the No. 7-ranked team in Class A -- to a one-goal game at Graham Arena. West's Derek Frentz scored a short-handed goal with less than 30 seconds to go to win it 2-1. One of Mayo's concerns after the Kiwanis Festival had to be its play in its own end. And I'm not just talking about the defensemen, but all five skaters. It looks like they cleared some things up against West, and Mayo got another nice effort in goal from senior Eric Gibson. Gibson and Luke Utley have split time equally in goal and will continue to unless/until one of them grabs the job and runs with it. Mayo and Century meet next Thursday for the first time this season. Their matchups could be very important when it comes to home-ice advantage for the opening round of the section playoffs. North is clearly the No. 1 seed and Farmington has an argument to be No. 2, based on wins over all three Rochester teams already. If Lakeville South can beat Mayo when they meet on Jan. 28, the Cougars could have the inside track to the No. 2 or 3 seed. That would leave Century and Mayo to battle for No. 4 and a home game in the section quarterfinals, likely against each other. All of those things will shake out soon enough, but it's not too soon to start thinking about playoff matchups. * Rochester Lourdes: I can't remember a team I've covered being hit as hard by injuries as the Eagles have been this season. They lost D Griff Slightam before the season started. They've lost leaders Cody Cossette, Connor Fitzpatrick, Nick Roth and now Mason Carstens to injuries during the season. All that considered, the Eagles should still be competitive come playoff time. They're getting excellent goalie play from junior Jack Burkel and they've learned how to play in close, low-scoring games. That's likely how they'll have to win if they want to have some success in the postseason. They're also eight days away from playing on state-wide TV in Hockey Day Minnesota. It's a real bummer and shame that a few guys won't get to play in that game. ... While I'm thinking of HDM '14, I'll have a bunch of preview stories in next Friday's paper, the Jan. 17 edition. Regardless of how many players Lourdes is missing, I know the coaches and players will be sure to soak in the experience and just enjoy being a part of it. That's it for tonight. I'll try to put together more coherent thoughts from now on; tonight's post is just sort of a stream of consciousness that came out while watching a replay of the Wild game. I'm in the process of putting together this year's "The List." A list of all former Rochester-area players who are currently in juniors, college or pros. There are so many leagues and teams, I'm sure I'm bound to miss someone, but as soon as I get through all the leagues and team rosters, I'll post the list here. As always, let me know if I've omitted anyone.

September 17, 2013

Junior Hockey | Austin Bruins ready to open '13-'14 season

Posted by: Feldman

As I write this, we're approximately 41 hours from the opening puck-drop of the 2013-14 Austin Bruins season. The Bruins face Port Huron at 5 p.m. Wednesday on the opening day of the four-day North American Hockey League Showcase.

Austin's four opponents in this week's Showcase are Port Huron (32-24-4 in 2012-13), Lone Star (formerly the Texas Tornadoes, 36-22-2 last season), Michigan (19-32-9) and Wichita Falls (26-30-4). Port Huron and Lone Star made the playoffs a year ago, Michigan and Wichita Falls did not.

But it's hard to put a lot of weight behind what those teams did a year ago. Rosters can change dramatically from year to year in junior hockey, and the Bruins are a perfect example.

Bs fans, you might want to print out a roster now and memorize it before the team's home opener on Oct. 5. For example, young 17-year-old forward Sam Kauppila could become a big-time scorer and star for the Bruins, but it'll take some time to get used to someone other than CJ Smith wearing No. 16. By all accounts 17-year-old Frenchman Guillaume Leclerc should provide a spark for the Bs offense (he's already committed to D-I RPI), but it will be odd not seeing "WAHLIN" above the No. 20 on the jersey.

In other words, the Bruins will have a lot of new faces on the ice this season, but we knew a year ago that this was coming. And, despite the roster turnover — just nine of the 23 players on the roster are back from last season — there's no reason the Bruins can't defend their Central Division championship.

They'll likely have to do it in a different fashion, though. They'll have to rely on two veterans between the pipes -- third-year Bruin Nick Lehr and 18-year-old Minnetonka native Justin Quale, who played with Tri-City of the USHL last season.

Back on defense are Jake Arroyo, Josh Bretner and Kody Reuter. Returning forwards include Jay Dickman, Rochester native Drew Anderson, Easton Viitala, Austin Nelson and Scott Nelson.

Here's a link to the preview story that is in today's (Tuesday's) Post-Bulletin. I give a quick breakdown of the team by position, along with some brief comments from head coach Chris Tok, who starts his fourth season as the only coach in Bruins' history.

Tok had lots of things to say about his newcomers, young players and veterans that didn't get into the print edition. Here are some of those comments:

His thoughts on the defensive corps as a whole: "They're definitely going to be counted on early; they're the more veteran group. They have to lead the way. We have four guys back there with some great experience. They have to lead the young guys and get them to come along. Four guys isn't enough to have success so we have to make sure we teach quickly and have guys on the same page. We'll rely a lot on our defense this year."

Six of the eight d-men on the roster are left-handed shots. Does that matter?: "No. We're just looking for the best kids, best players with the best character that we can work with, guys who can start at one point and work themselves to another point and be a lot better at the end of the year. Sometimes it just works out where you have more left-handed shots, sometimes more right-handed shots. But it doesn't matter. You have to be able to play the game. We're not in a position where we can be extremely picky on what hand a guy is."

With so much scoring to replace, do you expect that load to be distributed or placed on a just a few guys?: "We're not gonna put any added pressure on anybody to produce more goals or do anything that they're not capable of. As long as everybody is doing things right … when guys do things the right way, hopefully we can get all four of our lines to mix, to play good defense and be able to chip in offensively. We're not going to single any player out and say 'you have to be able to score more.' That's not fair to that player and it's not the right way to do things. We're going to make sure everybody is creating scoring opportunities and guys will find a way to put pucks in the back of the net."

What do you expect out of leading returning scorer Jay Dickman?: "We expect him to play the same game he played last year and hopefully he's gotten better. He's worked hard this summer to put himself in a position to have some D-I schools look at him. He put up a ton of points last season. There's no reason why he won't be able to do that again."

What are some of the things he needed to work on during the offseason?: "No. 1 is skating; all the D-I guys will get around the rink well. He's a big kid. He's 6-6 and, yeah he's a '93, but his body still has a lot of maturing to do. His body is ... he's a big guy, but his body's not the same. He weighs 220 pounds but he's not a strong, lean 220 that he's built up. He's 220 pounds because he's 6-6. So the strength, the agility, the coordination and all that stuff has to catch up to his height. That's what he worked on a lot, building some strength so that he can handle his body and he can do a few different things that make him a better player."

What do you hope to see out of your young forwards?: "We hope to see they have the ability to make themselves better, day in and day out. They'll have bumps and bruises along the way. They're going to play some good hockey, they're going to play some bad hockey. We have to make sure that their work ethic stays steady, when things are going bad they don't get too low and when things go well they don't get too high.
"Consistency is a big thing out of those young guys. They have a good skill level, they can get up and down the ice. As long as they play at a steady pace and do things the right way, good things will happen for them."

Will your top two goalies push each other and split time?: "They both have great credentials. They definitely should be pushing each other to get the No. 1 job and maybe get more starts. We'll probably keep (their playing time) fairly close at the beginning of the season unless one emerges. They're both quality quality goaltenders who have the ability to play some great hockey. How they play in games will be a big determining (factor) in who gets the nod."

Now all that's left to do is to drop the puck. I won't be in Blaine with the team during the Showcase, but I'll try to follow the games as closely as possible and provide updates on Twitter (@PBFeldy). You can also follow the Bruins on Facebook or on their official Twitter account (@theaustinbruins).

September 03, 2013

NAHL | Bruins report today

Posted by: Feldman

Who's ready for some hockey?

Four months ago Wednesday, the Austin Bruins had their season ended in the North American Hockey League Central Division finals by the Bismarck Bobcats.

Tonight, the Bruins begin their quest to get back to the postseason and to defend their regular season division championship. The Bruins report for fall camp at about 5 p.m. today. They play host to the new Richfield-based Minnesota Magicians on Saturday in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. at Riverside Arena.

The regular season gets underway Sept. 18 at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine with the four-day NAHL Showcase.

We'll dig more into the schedule and roster as the preseason progresses, but with the Bruins reporting today, let's take a quick glance at the team's strengths and where it has holes to fill:

GOALIE

Nick Lehr is back for his third season between the pipes. The 20-year-old from Roseville gives the Bruins' coaching staff some comfort, considering they have a lot of talent to replace on offense. Lehr has played 64 games in his Bruins career, posting a 2.49 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. He was the team's No. 1 last season, going 29-10-6 (including postseason) with a 2.39 GAA and a .916 save pct. Justin Quale, who played for Tri-City in the USHL last season, will battle for playing time, too. Let's hope Quale gives Bs fans some highlights like this. Jason Pawloski, who showed flashes of becoming a star last year as a 16-year-old-turned-17 during the season, has moved on to Indiana of the USHL after recently committing to Minnesota State, Mankato.

DEFENSE

The big loss on the blue line is Cody Dixon, who had 16-28—44 last season and was among the NAHL's top scoring defensemen all season. Dixon has moved on to NCAA Division III UMass-Boston this season. Veterans Josh Bretner (11-19—30) and Jake Arroyo (0-5—5) return, though Bretner has been listed as a forward in some preseason notes. New blueliners include Cory Dunn, one of the Bruins' tenders, who had 10 points in 31 games for Team Illinois in the U18 High Performance Hockey League; Tyler Jones, from Chicago Young America; Eli May, who played for Tri-City in the USHL last season; and RPI commit Charlie Manley, a left shot D from near Buffalo, N.Y., who played four games for Waterloo of the USHL last season.

FORWARDS

This is where the Bruins will be searching for contributors. Jay Dickman (23-34—57) is back, the only one of the team's top six scorers to return this season. Gone are the franchise's all-time leader in points (Brandon Wahlin, 119 points) and goals scored (John Simonson, 52). Simonson is likely to play for Lincoln of the USHL this season; he was posted on their protected list that was released on Monday (thanks to Black And Blue, lincolnstarsblog.com for the update). AJ Reid (28-42—70) is off to play college hockey at Air Force, while CJ Smith (34-30—64) will play in the USHL for Muskegon. He is committed to UMass-Lowell, where he'll play with former Bruins d-man Christian Folin. In addition to Dickman, returning forwards include Kody Reuter, Rochester Century grad Drew Anderson, Austin Nelson, Scott Nelson (he'll start the season injured reserve) and Easton Viitala. Among the new forwards coming in is Dominik Florian, a tender who played high school hockey in Waukesha, Wis., last season. He's from the Czech Republic originally and produced 55 points in 27 games at Waukesha last season. Another young forward, who was also one of the Bruins' tenders this season, is Trey Dodd. He was one of a handful of 16-year-olds to play in the NA3HL last season, where he put up 34 points in 44 games for the St. Louis Jr. Blues. The team's top draft pick, Sam Kauppila from Chicago Mission U18, will be in camp. He played five games in the USHL last year.

We'll dig deeper into these players and more as the preseason moves along, but that's a little taste of where the Bruins are as camp opens today.

I'll be at Bruins practice tonight and have a story in Wednesday's Post-Bulletin. I'll link to it here when it hits PostBulletin.com.

Let me know, Bruins fans, what more would you like to see in our Bruins coverage this season? We'll get to as many games as we feasibly can, and I intend to write more profile-type stories on their players than I did a year ago. But, if you'd like to see more blogs, videos, different types of stories, let me know. Leave a comment here or drop me an email at jfeldman@postbulletin.com.