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.