AUSTIN -- Nine months ago 21 players reported to Riverside Arena for the first practice of a new season.
AUSTIN -- Nine months ago 21 players reported to Riverside Arena for the first practice of a new season.
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.
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:
* 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
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.
Let's move on to some hockey, eh?
NAHL CENTRAL DIVISION FINAL SERIES
AUSTIN BRUINS vs. MINOT MINOTAUROS
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).
TALE OF THE TAPE
Records (reg ssn/playoffs): Minot (37-17-6 / 3-0-0); Austin (38-11-11 / 3-0-0)
Head-to-head (points earned): Minot 4-0-0 (8); Austin 0-1-3 (3).
Offense: Minot 3.07 goals per game; Austin 3.50 goals per game
Defense: Minot 2.28 goals allowed per game; Austin 2.27 goals allowed per game
Power play (NAHL rank): Aberdeen 15.0 pct. (15); Austin 14.2 pct. (19).
Penalty kill (NAHL rank): Minot 87.02 pct. (4); Austin 90.18 pct. (1).
Goaltending (save pct.): Minot .909; Austin .907.
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.
Posted by: Feldman
The Austin Bruins did their job last weekend, as they have throughout the second half of the season. They went to last-place Brookings and made the Blizzard look like a team that had nothing to play for, sweeping the two-game regular season-finale series by a combined score of 13-1.
That gives the Bs a 38-11-11 record heading into the NAHL playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Central Division. They'll face fourth-seeded Aberdeen (27-31-2) in a best 3-of-5 first-round series, beginning with Games 1 and 2 at 7:05 p.m. tonight and Saturday at Riverside Arena.
Here is a story from Thursday's P-B about how this year's Bruins team is different from the division title teams of the past two years.
Here is a story that is in today's P-B on the Bruins' two veteran defensemen and alternate captains, Jake Arroyo and Cory Dunn.
Dunn and Arroyo are both guys who didn't arrive in Austin with a lot of buzz, but have developed into leaders on and off the ice. As Dunn said earlier this week, players who come to Austin, buy into what the coaches are asking them to do and continue to learn and improve will eventually earn their ice time.
That's what Dunn, in his second year with the team, has done. He didn't play regularly in the first half of last season. But he stuck with it, continued to learn the team's systems and learn what the coaching staff expected of him. By the time the postseason rolled around, it was hard to keep him off the ice. He had earned regular shifts on the penalty kill and the power play and it was evident his confidence had grown.
Arroyo is the only third-year Bruin on this team and the only player to be a part of all three of Austin's Central Division regular season championships. As I noted in today's story, he's a captain for a reason. This time of year, coaches and players talk a lot about sacrificing for the team. Arroyo does that on a nightly basis, whether it's dropping to block shots, throwing body checks or refusing to allow opponents to set up in front of Bs goalies Evan Smith and Jake Kielly.
Dunn and Arroyo are two of six players on the Bruins roster with NAHL playoff experience. The others are forward and team captain Brian Bachnak, and forwards Alex Pettersson, Luke Dietsch and Trevor Boyd. At practice this week, I got the sense that those guys are trying to pound it into the heads of the guys who are new to the NAHL playoffs: This time of year is different. You take a night off, your season might be over.
Aberdeen, which hasn't beaten Austin in regulation in eight tries this season, had to battle just to make the postseason. Expect the Wings to play with a sense of desperation from the opening drop of the puck tonight. The Bruins' 21-3-3 record since Jan. 1 means little at this point. It's a nice number to look at, but has no bearing on the games being played anymore.
In other words, the Bruins' captains are imploring their teammates to not just match, but to exceed Aberdeen's sense of desperation.
The five guys who were on the Bs playoff roster last season (Boyd's playoff experience came two years ago when he played for Kalamazoo) remember what happened in their playoff opener. The Bs came in riding high as regular season division champs, then subsequently gave up four goals in the first 16:09 and lost to Minot 8-6 at Riverside. The Bs rebounded to win the next three games -- including a series-clinching 4-3, 3-OT victory in Game 4 at Minot that stands as the longest game in NAHL history at 116 minutes, 57 seconds. They went on to beat Bismarck in the Central Division playoff championship series and advanced all the way to the Robertson Cup finals, where they lost to Fairbanks in two games.
If you want to take a little trip down memory lane before the 2015 NAHL playoffs begin in less than 7 hours, here's a blog post about Lucas Kohls' goal that won that marathon game at Minot.
All right, I could go off on tangents all day, but let's get back to the present. Austin is playing as well as any team in the NAHL -- even the Janesville (Wis.) Jets, who set league records for regular-season victories (49) and points (100), and lost just nine times in regulation during their 60-game regular season. Both Austin and Janesville bring six-game winning streaks into the playoffs.
Some other links before we get to the Tale of the Tape:
* KAAL-TV: Bruins confident heading into postseason
* KAAL-TV: This week's Austin Bruins coach's show
* Aberdeen American News: Wings hope to win playoff series for first time
* * * * *
NAHL CENTRAL DIVISION SEMIFINAL SERIES
AUSTIN BRUINS vs. ABERDEEN WINGS
Game 1: 7:05 p.m. tonight, at Austin
Game 2: 7:05 p.m. Saturday, at Austin
Game 3: 7:15 p.m. April 10, at Aberdeen
* Game 4: 7:15 p.m., April 11, at Aberdeen
* Game 5: 7:05 p.m., April 17, at Austin
* -- if necessary
(all dates and times according to NAHL.com)
Regular-season records: Aberdeen 27-31-2 (4th in NAHL Central); Austin 38-11-11 (1st in NAHL Central)
Head coaches: Aberdeen, Francis Anzalone (1st season, 27-31-2 overall); Austin, Chris Tok (5th season, 195-104-29 overall)
Wings leading scorers: F Kyle Haak (19-35--54); F Michael Soucier (18-17--35); F Bjorn Sigurdarson (14-17--31); D Tanner Okeson (7-18--25); F Tucker DeYoung (10-10--20).
Wings goalies: Andrew Shortridge (15-15-1, 2.57 GAA, .913 save pct.); Luke Kania (4-3-0, 2.28, .938).
Bruins leading scorers: F Trevor Boyd (26-24--50); F Alex Pettersson (11-32--43); F Nico Sturm (11-30--41); F Tony Uglem (22-17--39); F Luke Dietsch (9-28--37).
Bruins goalies: Jake Kielly (20-5-6, 2.12 GAA, .906 save pct.); Evan Smith (12-1-2, 1.73, .923).
* * * * *
TALE OF THE TAPE
Records (points): Aberdeen 27-31-2 (56 points, 4th in NAHL Central); Austin 38-11-11 (87 points, 1st in NAHL Central).
Head-to-head (points earned): Aberdeen 3-5-0 (6 pts.); Austin 5-0-3 (13 pts.). All three of Aberdeen's wins came in OT or shootout.
Offense: Aberdeen 2.37 goals per game; Austin 3.5 goals per game
Defense: Aberdeen 2.75 goals allowed per game; Austin 2.27 goals allowed per game
Power play (NAHL rank): Aberdeen 15.3 pct. (13); Austin 14.2 pct. (19).
Penalty kill (NAHL rank): Aberdeen 84.2 pct. (9); Austin 90.2 pct. (1).
Goaltending (save pct.): Aberdeen .909; Austin .907.
* * * * *
Wings leading scorer Kyle Haak is an Air Force commit. He'll play there with former Bruins F A.J. Reid and for head coach Frank Serratore, a former Austin Mavericks and Rochester Mustangs coach. ... The Bruins finished with the third-most points in the league (87), behind only Janesville (100) and Lone Star (88). Austin did it without a player in the top 25 in the NAHL in points (Bs leading scorer Trevor Boyd ranks 30th with 50 points) and without a top-10 goal-scorer (Boyd is 13th with 26 goals). ... Wings goalie Luke Kania has started seven of nine games since he was picked up by Aberdeen in late February. He made his first NAHL start against the Bruins on Feb. 28, a 3-1 loss in which he made 42 saves. Kania has stopped more than 35 shots in five of his seven starts.
The playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. That's no bold statement. Coaches know it. Players know it. Fans certainly know. But to actually play postseason hockey is different than hearing about it. Austin has six guys with NAHL playoff experience, five who have played in a postseason game for the Bruins. That experience factor probably gets oversold, especially with this Bruins team, which played important games for essentially the entire second half of the regular season, as it tracked down and passed Minot to win the Central Division title. Still, it's difficult to end a team's season. Aberdeen hasn't been an easy team to beat all season. The Bruins are the better team, though. They proved that through the long haul. I think Aberdeen gets one win in the series, but not this weekend: Austin 5-2, Austin 4-3.
Posted by: Feldman
As I wrote in today's paper, there are plenty of reasons for the Austin Bruins to not let down this weekend.
Sure, the Bs have their third consecutive NAHL Central Division title wrapped up. Sure, they'll be at home for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But think back to last season, when Austin reached the Robertson Cup semifinals for the first time ever. They had to play three tough games down in Topeka, Kan., in the national semifinals. They bused back home late on a Saturday night, then had to turn around three days later and spend a day traveling to Fairbanks for the Robertson Cup national championship series.
There's a decent chance the Bruins could again advance to the national semifinals and they'd prefer to not have to get on a bus and travel to Kansas or Texas or Pennsylvania, or wherever the standings may dictate they go.
After the first two rounds of the NAHL playoffs, the home team for the national semifinals and finals are determined by which team had more points in the regular season standings.
The Janesville (Wis.) Jets have locked up home-ice advantage for as long as they continue to win games and playoff series.
Beyond the Jets, six teams are still in line to finish the regular season with the second-most points, behind Janesville:
1. Janesville 96 pts. (2 games remaining)
2. Lone Star Brahmas 84 pts. (2 games remaining)
3. Wichita Falls 83 pts. (2 gms rem.)
4. Austin 83 pts. (2 gms rem.)
5. Topeka 82 pts. (3 gms rem.)
6. Fairbanks 80 pts. (2 gms rem.)
7. Minnesota Wilderness 80 pts. (3 gms rem.)
Wichita Falls will finish with more regular season wins than Austin (39-36 right now), so WF would win the tie-breaker.
Even if Austin doesn't leapfrog enough teams to finish with the second-most points, it would still be ideal to finish with the third-most, and avoid a matchup with Janesville in the Robertson Cup semifinals.
But, I'm getting way ahead of things here. The Bruins have two final regular-season games to play this weekend, against a Brookings (S.D.) team that has been eliminated from the playoff chase and has nothing to play for. Then the Bs would have to win a pair of playoff series against division rivals.
So ... this weekend's games. They're at 7:05 p.m. Friday in Austin and 7:15 p.m. Saturday at Brookings. if nothing else, the Bs want to keep playing well and keep this momentum going that they've built since the start of 2015.
By the way, bring your checkbooks on Friday. The Bs will auction off their jerseys after the game.
We hear every day about this amazing hot streak the Minnesota Wild are on (and it is remarkable). But the Bs have been on a pretty nice run of their own. They're 19-3-3 since a New Year's Eve loss to Coulee Region, with all three regulation losses in this run coming against Brookings.
* * * * *
THIS WEEKEND'S SERIES
BRUINS vs. BROOKINGS BLIZZARD
(7:05 p.m. Friday at Riverside Arena, Austin; 7:15 p.m. Saturday at Brookings)
Records: Brookings 19-30-9 (47 pts., 5th in NAHL Central); Austin 36-11-11 (83 pts., 1st in NAHL Central).
Head coaches: Brookings, Dan Daikawa (1st season, 19-30-9 overall); Austin, Chris Tok (5th season, 191-105-30 overall)
Blizzard's top scorers: F Beau Michaud (17-32--49); D Zach Glienke (16-21--37); F Nate Colwell (11-22--33); F Joe Anderson (14-14--28); D Ben Campbell (7-17--24).
Blizzard goalies: Ryan Kubic (10-14-5, 2.63 GAA, .910 save pct.); Eric Hancock (8-12-4, 3.15, .891)
Bruins top scorers: F Trevor Boyd (26-22--48); F Alex Pettersson (8-32--40); F Nico Sturm (11-28--39); F Tony Uglem (20-17--37); F Luke Dietsch (9-25--34).
Bruins goalies: Jake Kielly (19-5-6, 2.19 GAA, .904 save pct.); Evan Smith (11-1-2, 1.79, .922).
TALE OF THE TAPE
Records (points): Brookings 19-30-9 (47); Austin 36-11-11 (83)
Head-to-head (points earned): Brookings 3-5-2 (8); Austin 7-3-0 (10)
Offense: Brookings 2.37 goals per game; Austin 3.40 goals per game
Defense: Brookings 3.30 goals per game allowed; Austin 2.33 goals allowed
Power play: Brookings 19.1 pct. (9); Austin 13.4 pct. (22)
Penalty kill: Brookings 83.2 pct. (13); Austin 89.8 (1)
Goaltending (save pct.): Brookings .897; Austin .909
* * * * *
These teams have already met 10 times this year, with Austin going 5-3-0 vs. Brookings. ... Forwards Brian Bachnak and Nico Sturm have played very well against Brookings this season. They're tied with the most points by a Bruins player against Brookings, with nine apiece. ... Austin has made a habit of getting off to strong starts this season, outscoring its opponents 54-31 in the first period and 76-48 in the second. ... The Bruins have the No. 1-ranked penalty kill in the NAHL and have scored 10 short-handed goals this season. ... Bruins goalie Evan Smith has won four consecutive starts.
No need to overthink this. Brookings has nothing to play for. The Bruins have plenty. This isn't to say that Brookings will roll over and play dead. The Blizzard will put up a fight -- as always -- but the Bruins have larger goals in mind and they want to go into next weekend's playoff series against Aberdeen on a high note. Austin's top line (Trevor Boyd-Luke Dietsch-Tony Uglem) has been red-hot the past couple of weeks. Boyd alone has nine points in his past five games. Austin's defensive corps is deep and the Bs have learned to win games in a number of different styles. They'll close the regular season strong: Bruins 5-1, Bruins 4-3.
Posted by: Feldman
We're just less than an hour away from puck drop at Riverside Arena as I write this.
The NAHL Central Division-leading Austin Bruins (35-11-11) playing host to the last-place Brookings Blizzard (19-28-9). The Bruins are coming off a thoroughly dominant 6-1 victory at Brookings last night. Austin better not have to fight off complacency, though. There's a lot at stake tonight, namely a third consecutive regular-season division championship and home-ice advantage through the playoffs.
Austin will face a Brookings team that is fighting for its season (not that that seemed to matter to the Blizzard last night). Brookings has to win its final four games (three of which are against Austin) and have Aberdeen lose its final three. Very unlikely, but stranger things have happened. Not many stranger things, but some.
Evan Smith will make his fourth consecutive start in goal tonight for the Bs. Sounds like Jake Kielly has a minor injury and letting him rest won't hurt. The Bs have -- fortunately -- had a solid goaltending situation all season. Last year, they had to ride Nick Lehr, no matter how he played (which was outstanding most nights).
This year, they can afford to give Kielly and Smith adequate rest. And it's not like either has been overworked. Kielly hasn't played more than five consecutive games this season. Tonight's start will mark Smith's longest consecutive-start stretch of the year, at four games.
How'd they get here?
With it a virtual certainty that Austin will win the division (it can also win it with a Minot loss tonight), let's take a deep breath for a few seconds and think about where this team has come from to get to this point. Every player and coach I've talked to points back to the beginning of the season, when Austin steamrolled its way to the NAHL Showcase championship in mid-September in Blaine.
That gave the Bs a lot of confidence, maybe too much.
They hit a stretch in October and into November and December where they looked disjointed at best, uninterested at times and just were not a good team. The one thing the coaching staff kept telling me at that point was that there are talented players on this team, they just need to play as a team, play for each other. I'd imagine that's a message that outspoken captain Brian Bachnak kept repeating in the locker room, too.
The coaches and captains kept pounding that message into the players' heads and, not surprisingly, when the calendar flipped to 2015, something flipped in all of the Bruins' heads, too. A lightbulb went on within the team, if you like that cliche.
It's not like the Bruins were awful. They were 17-8-8 after a home loss to Coulee Region on New Year's Eve. But the record didn't necessarily match the level of play from the team for much of the first half.
I've used this stat ad naseum, but it's a very telling number and one that shows just how far this team has come: Since Jan. 1, Austin is 18-3-3, with all three regulation losses coming against Brookings.
I've asked and asked, coaches and players both, what the difference has been. Nobody can put their finger on any one thing. The most common answer I get: We're playing as a team. That is probably the most logical explanation. A difference line, a different player seems to step up each night. Last night, for example, six players scored once each. Seven different players have scored game-winning goals in the past eight games.
The Bruins aren't overwhelming opponents, but they're finding different ways to win. That's a pretty good recipe for postseason success. If they win tonight, a majority of those postseason games will be here at Riverside.
NAHL Central Division standings
Austin 35-11-11 81
Minot 35-16-6 76
Bismarck 28-25-4 60
Aberdeen 26-29-2 54
Brookings 19-28-9 47
G 30 Ryan Kubic (10-13-5, 2.51 GAA, .913 save pct.)
D 5 Connor Spetz (2-6--8) / 24 Kris Brun (1-8--9)
F 27 Nate Colwell (9-12--21) / 19 Connor Hutchins (6-9--15) / 7 Zach Glienke (16-21--37)
(scratches: D Gavin Mindt, F Max Rasberg, F Colton Schmidt)
G 30 Evan Smith (10-1-2, 1.77 GAA, .924 save pct.)
D 28 Jake Arroyo (3-9--12) / 24 Riese Zmolek (0-0--0)
F 13 Trevor Boyd (23-21--44) / 11 Luke Dietsch (9-24--33) / 14 Tony Uglem (21-16--37)
(scratches: D Derek Olmschenk, D Landen Letwin, F Jade Miller)
Posted by: Feldman
With the high school hockey season in the rearview, and after a couple days to decompress from an outstanding state tournament, it's time to put a close to the local high school season by naming our Sixth Annual Faceoff Blog All-Area Team and Player of the Year.
In what was an OK year for our local and area teams (boys hockey teams in our coverage area include the four Rochester schools, Austin, Dodge County and Red Wing), there were a number of players who jumped out as the best. In fact, our Player of the Year was probably the best player in the Big Nine Conference.
I'll make my annual disclaimer here: The All-Area Team appears only on the Faceoff Blog (not in print or on PostBulletin.com) for a number of reasons, the main one being most of our other writers don't like to do all-area teams because they often become a bigger headache than they're worth. Many times, so many kids' stats are so similar, that it's a no-win situation for us. If we put a point guard who averages 14 points and 7 assists per game on an all-area basketball team, we'll get an earful from mom of kid who averages 15 points and 6 assists.
I'm fair game, though. Rip away if you don't like the team I've put together. I picked it based on who I thought the best players in our coverage area were. Since I don't see every game played, and some teams I only saw once or twice this season, I also went on word of mouth, the things I hear from area coaches during the season. By chatting regularly with coaches, you get a pretty good idea of which players mean the most to their teams, regardless of what the stats say.
And as I've said in past years, there's nothing P.C. about the team (I don't try to balance it out or make sure that every area team is represented equally), it's just a list of who I think the best players in the area were this season.
Let's get to it.
Below you'll find an All-Area First Team, Second Team, a PUC list (Players Under Consideration; my not-so-clever way of saying "honorable mention") and a list of past Players of the Year.
***PLAYER OF THE YEAR***
Riese Zmolek, senior, Rochester Century (20-21--41)
Our repeat selection as the All-Area Player of the Year, Zmolek was the fourth-leading scorer in the city, as a defenseman. He was hands-down the most versatile player I saw this year in our area. He has all the tools to compete at higher levels. He played in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League last fall, and he hit the ground running for the high school season. He finished with a career-best 41 points and capped his prep career with 103 total points, an amazing stat for a D-man, but even more astounding considering Zmolek missed half of his sophomore season with an injury.
Here's an evaluation one junior hockey scout gave me on Zmolek: "We watched him at the start of the Elite League season and thought 'I don't know, he has a ways to go.' We went back and watched him toward the end of the Elite League season and he popped. He can do it all. He should be in the USHL next season and he can play at the D-I (college) level."
Just a few days after the conclusion of his high school career, Zmolek moved over to Austin, where he'll finish the season with the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League. He was thrown right into the fire there, playing in all situations, including being sent out to kill a 5-on-3 disadvantage in the final two minutes of his second game back with the team (he played four games for the Bruins prior to the high school season).
Griff Slightam, senior, Rochester Lourdes (8-7--15)
For a second consecutive season, the skilled and big, physical d-man was hampered by injuries. Slightam missed his entire junior season due to an injury he suffered during the football season. He also missed half of his senior season because of injuries, yet put up 15 points from the blue line, and served as basically another assistant coach for the Eagles while sidelined. The fifth-year varsity player played in three state tournaments. He was at his best late in the season, recording four points in two playoff games. His two late-third period goals helped Lourdes rally to beat Mankato East in overtime of a Section 1A first-round game. He is tendered with the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League.
Logan Haskins, senior, Rochester Mayo (22-25--47)
The only repeat First Team forward, Haskins led the city in scoring for a second consecutive season. 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.
Jake Roth, senior, Rochester Century (19-25--44)
The runner-up for the city scoring title, Roth piled up 117 career points over four seasons on Century's varsity. That total includes 82 points over the past two seasons. Roth played mutliple roles for the Panthers. He wasn't afraid to dig in the corners and battle for the puck, and wasn't afraid to go to the front of the net and score gritty goals. He could make plays, too, as indicated by his 25 assists -- a total that matches Haskins for the most in Rochester this season.
Anthony Oliveto, sophomore, Rochester Mayo (26-17--43)
The city's goal-scoring champ finished third in points in Rochester, behind only Haskins and Roth. Just a sophomore, Oliveto already has 67 career varsity points. The big, skilled forward led Rochester with 26 goals and finished his sophomore season on a nine-game point streak.
Jack Burkel, senior, Rochester Lourdes (5-18-2, 2.80 GAA, .901 save pct., 3 shutouts
The veteran goalie was far better than his record indicates. The goals-against average and save percentage tell a more accurate story. In 17 of his 25 starts, Burkel allowed three goals or less. Lourdes scored more than three goals in a game just four times all season, so Burkel had to be sharp each night out. He gave his team a chance to win nearly every game it played, including a narrow season-ending 2-1 loss to top-seeded New Prague -- the eventual section champ -- in a Section 1A quarterfinal game.
* * * * *
Dakota Streit, senior, Rochester Lourdes (4-11--15): Played the "Ryan Suter" role for the Eagles, eating big chunks of ice time on a nightly basis, all while being the team's most steady defenseman on both ends of the ice.
Will Zmolek, sophomore, Rochester Century (5-12--17): By the mid-point of his first varsity season, he was as reliable as any defenseman in the Big Nine. Rarely was beaten or caught out of position. Wasn't asked to do a lot of scoring, but finished with 17 points, a good total for a young d-man.
Ethan Moore, senior, Rochester Mayo (12-23--35): Had at least a point in 20 of Mayo's 26 games this season. Totaled six points in three games at the Kiwanis Festival as Mayo captured the tournament championship in late December.
Cory Checco, sophomore, Rochester JM (15-16--31): Led the Rockets in goals, assists and points in his second varsity season. Had at least one point in 21 of JM's 26 games. He'll go into his junior season with 56 career points.
Tyler Defore, sophomore, Red Wing (21-13--34): One of just four 20-goal scorers in our area, the sophomore was his team's leading scorer and finished the season strong. He had 14 points over the final eight games, including four points in a playoff win against Waseca.
Chris Wileman, senior, Rochester Mayo (16-8-1, 2.98 GAA, .871 save pct., 2 shutouts): The senior had a strong start to his season, recording a shutout in his varsity debut. He finished the season with a sub-3.00 GAA and helped Mayo earn a home playoff game.
* * * * *
PUC (Players Under Consideration)
* Tucker Chapman, soph., Rochester Lourdes (17-7--24)
* Brady Dahl, junior, Rochester JM (14-9--23)
* Dylan Goggin, senior, Red Wing (18-15--33)
* Sam Hanson, junior, Red Wing (17-16--33)
* Nic Leisen, sophomore, Dodge County (11-14--25)
* Josh Frerks, junior, Rochester JM (5-9--14)
* James Johnston, senior, Rochester Mayo (7-12--19)
* Alex Ney, senior, Rochester Century (12-7--19)
* Adam Defore, senior, Red Wing (8-18-1, 3.98 GAA, .873 save pct.)
* Brady Meyers, junior, Rochester JM (9-13-0, 3.31 GAA, .886 save pct., 1 SO)
* Cole Walter, freshman, Rochester Century (8-3-1, 2.96 GAA, .872 save pct., 1 SO)
* * * * *
FACEOFF BLOG ALL-AREA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
* 2015: Riese Zmolek, senior, D, Rochester Century
* 2014: Riese Zmolek, junior, D, Rochester Century
* 2013: Alex Funk and Jason Samuelson, seniors, F, Rochester Lourdes
* 2012: Alex Funk, junior, F, Rochester Lourdes
* 2011: Rory Vesel, senior, D, Rochester Lourdes
* 2010: No POY (the inaugural all-area team didn't include a POY)
* * * * *
BELOW: Two All-Area First Team players battle during a Section 1AA quarterfinal game at Graham I on Feb. 19. Mayo's Logan Haskins, left, attempts to carry the puck around Century's Riese Zmolek. (Photo credit to Post-Bulletin's Scott Jacobson)
Posted by: Feldman
What better way for The Tourney '15 to start than by earning the No. 1 play on SportsCenter's Top 10 and having the final game of the day decided on a good goal in OT?
Your move, Class AA.
The big boys start today in front of a sold out Xcel Energy Center, when 98 percent of the state (that number may be low) cheers on Bemidji against No. 2-seeded Edina in what could be a tremendous opening game.
Before we break down the AA games, here are some links to stories from yesterday's Class A quarterfinals and some links to Class AA tournament preview stories:
* Defending state champs knock off Section 1 champ New Prauge (Grand Forks Herald)
* Hermantown breezes into Class A semis (Duluth News Tribune)
* Hermantown is a loose group this year (Star Tribune)
* A young Duluth East team is proving its doubters wrong (Duluth News Tribune)
* Section 1AA champ Lakeville North in pursuit of perfection (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
* Everyone in Minnesota might be thinking about a potential Lakeville North-Edina matchup, except North and Edina (Star Tribune)
* The legacy of the 1990s Bloomington Jefferson powerhouse teams could be matched this weekend. (Pioneer Press)
• • •
CLASS AA STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
11 a.m. — Bemidji (23-3-2) vs. No. 2 Edina (24-1-2)
Overview: Bemidji has posted shutouts in seven of its past 10 games and has allowed a total of three goals in that stretch. However, all of the Lumberjacks players were at least a decade from being born the last time Bemidji made state (1986). Edina has been to nine consecutive state tournaments and has the two highest-scoring players in the field, Dylan Malmquist and Garrett Wait, a Gophers commit, both who have 71 points.
Bemidji leaders: Sr. Jake Leitner (22-25--47); Jr. Nick Leitner (7-8--15); Sr. goalie Grant Tharaldson (16-2-2, 1.28 GAA, .928 save pct.).
Edina leaders: Sr. Dylan Malmquist (28-43--71); Jr. Garrett Wait (23-48--71); Sr. Paul Meyer (4-18--22); Sr. goalie Kobi Boe (21-1-2, 1.68, .914).
The pick: As much as many Minnesotans would like to see Bemidji open the day with an upset, it's difficult to pick against Edina this time of year: Edina 3, Bemidji 1 (en).
• • •
1 p.m. — Duluth East (14-10-4) vs. No. 3 St. Thomas Academy (24-4-0)
Overview: Duluth East is in its seventh consecutive state tournament and 22nd overall. It hasn't beaten another state tournament team this season, but will play a puck possession game and attempt to keep the score down. STA is making its first Class AA tournament appearance after making eight in Class A, including winning five titles.
East leaders: Sr. Nick Altmann (14-13--27); Jr. Ash Altmann (10-14--24); Sr. goalie Gunnar Howg (10-6-4, 2.46, .904).
STA leaders: Sr. Alec Broetzman (35-31--66); Sr. Christiano Versich (24-42--66); Sr. Peter Tufto (30-42--72); Sr. D Seamus Donohue (5-34--39); Sr. goalie Matt Snow (17-3, 1.92, .912).
The pick: East is 0-5 against tournament teams this season. That won't change in the opener: STA 5, East 3.
• • •
6 p.m. — Hill-Murray (21-7-0) vs. No. 1 Lakeville North (28-0-0)
Overview: Hill is back at state for a third time in four years. It was upset in the section final last year by Stillwater, but avenged that loss in this year's section semifinals. North won't sneak up on anyone in the state this year. Led by six Division I commits, the Panthers are unbeaten, ranked No. 1 in the state and seeded No. 1 in the tournament. They haven't lost in almost a year, since an 8-2 loss to Edina in last year's state championship game.
H-M leaders: Sr. Zach Mills (23-21--44); Sr. Davis Zarembinski (7-19--26); So. Marko Reifenberger (19-21--40); So. goalie Jake Begley (11-2, 1.39, .925).
North leaders: Sr. Jack Poehling (34-35--69); Sr. Nick Poehling (32-31--63); So. Ryan Poehling (15-32--47); Jr. Max Johnson (17-30--47); Jr. goalie Ryan Edquist (26-0, 1.30, .940).
The pick: Would this really be considered a huge upset if Hill was to win? It won 21 games this season against a tough schedule and has a pair of 40-point scorers. Hill will give North a run, but ultimately the Panthers' depth and goalie play will carry them through to the semis: North 4, H-M 1.
• • •
8 p.m. — No. 5 Eden Prairie (18-9-0) vs. No. 4 Blaine (22-5-1)
Overview: E.P. lost 13 seniors from last year's team, including a pair of Mr. Hockey candidates. It hasn't skipped a beat, though, and has two Division I commits -- Michael Graham (UMD) and Casey Mittlestadt (Minnesota). Blaine has a first-year head coach and lost 15 seniors off last year's team. But aside from top-seeded North, it might be the hottest team in the state. It hasn't lost in its past 17 games (16-0-1), allowing less than 30 goals in that span. Its leading scorer, Riley Tufte, is a UMD commit.
E.P. leaders: Soph. Casey Mittlestadt (24-26--50); Jr. Michael Graham (23-23--46); Sr. D Andy Aguilar (1-15-16); Sr. goalie Shaun Durocher (14-7, 2.70, .904).
Blaine leaders: Jr. Riley Tufte (27-32--59); Jr. Luke Notermann (26-29--55); Sr. Easton Brodzinski (30-21--51); Jr. goalie Jon Kallestad (12-2-1, 2.21, .920); Jr. goalie junior Ridge Gerads (10-3-0, 2.15, .914).
The pick: Blaine hasn't lost since Jan. 2. That streak might not make it through the weekend, but it makes it through tonight: Blaine 5, Eden Prairie 4.
• • •
• Edina vs. STA: The heads of hockey fans around the state might explode having to watch these two powerhouse programs that, ummmm, aren't the most-liked teams around, face off with a spot in the state title game on the line. Could Edina draw support from the fans as the public school in this battle? Could STA draw support as the former Class A team that moved up to face the big dogs? Could fans just hope for a double-countout and have the title awarded to the winner of the other semifinal? Probably not, there has to be a winner: Edina 4, STA 3 (OT).
• North vs. Blaine: Don't count out the Bengals in this one. Watching North in the Section 1AA tournament, it took 6-7 minutes to get up to full speed. North doesn't take a lot of shots, but it works for good ones. I'd be tempted to call an upset here, but I love the way North goalie Ryan Edquist plays. He'll be the difference in this one: North 4, Blaine 1 (en).
• • •
It's the rematch everybody wanted ... well, some people wanted. I like this North team a lot. It does things the right way. It makes the smart play, moves the puck well and has the chemistry that the great teams always have. Edina has only lost once all season, though, that coming against North, back in the first week of December. As much as I'd love to see North represent Section 1 and bring a state title back to Lakeville with it, it is incredibly difficult to go unbeaten in Minnesota high school hockey: Edina 3, North 2.
Posted by: Feldman
I have to start today with a mea culpa.
I'm not pround of this, but I scheduled a dentist appointment for 11:20 this morning. The Tourney '15 begins at 11 a.m.
*currently hanging my head in shame*
Thankfully, DVRs exist, and The Tourney can be found on KAAL 6.2 or Charter Cable 192 in Rochester. It's also available for $5/day on Prep45.com. So I'll be having my gums poked while New Ulm and Mahtomedi are opening tournament play this morning.
I haven't seen Mahtomedi play this season, but it's the team I'm most looking forward to watching in the Class A field. The Zephyrs are the No. 2 seed, with a 24-2-2 record, and hold some impressive victories this season (Cretin, Breck, STA, Hill-Murray). They also have one of the top scorers in the tournament -- junior F Jack Becker, who has 25 goals and 60 total points this year.
Mahtomedi hasn't lost to a Class A school -- just like top seed Hermantown -- and hasn't lost since Jan. 8. It also has avenged its only two losses this season (Hill and STA). I wouldn't be shocked if the Zephyrs are lifting the big trophy on Saturday afternoon.
Oops, did I give away a prediction already? No, of course not. Or did I? Who knows. I'm not even sure, because I change my mind every minute and my pick to win will change six times before this post is done. Keep reading and I'll make my picks at the end of this post.
Before we get into the matchups, here is the state tournament preview that ran in the Post-Bulletin print edition on Tuesday. It includes a story on Lakeville North junior goalie Ryan Edquist, a Gophers commit who has been dominant this season.
As I wrote in a previous blog, I'm not great at breaking down goalie play, but I know a good one when I see one. Edquist is most definitely one. He not only is always in the right spot to make a save, but he is incredibly adept at playing and passing the puck.
Tomorrow, we'll break down the AA tourney and on Saturday we'll have our annual P-B Faceoff Blog All-Area Boys Hockey Team and Player of the Year.
Before we get to the matchups, here are some links to previews and stories about The Tourney from around the state:
* Again, my tournament preview, including a story on North's Ryan Edquist, and a little bit on New Prague's first-round matchup, plus tournament TV and ticket info, and a "By the Numbers" bit with a fact on each of the teams in The Tourney.
* A great piece from the Star Tribune's David LaVaque on Duluth East and tourney legend Dave Spehar, who put together perhaps the single-most impressive performance by an individual in the history of The Tourney.
* Mahtomedi's confidence soared after beating Hill-Murray and STA in a two-week span (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
* As I mentioned in my preview, Breck goalie Stephen Headrick has been outstanding this season, allowing less than 1.4 goals per game. (MNHockeyHub.com)
* Kevin Hartzell at Let's Play Hockey fittingly calls this week Homecoming Week in Minnesota
* The Duluth News Tribune asks the same question we've been asking for almost a decade: Is this finally Hermantown's year?
* The defending state champions from East Grand Forks are back at The Tourney, but without four star defensemen who anchored the team last season (Grand Forks Herald)
I'm running out of time before puck drop for the opener (I believe it's officially set for 11:17 a.m.), so let's get to the matchups:
CLASS A STATE QUARTERFINALS
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
11 a.m. — New Ulm (18-8-2) vs. No. 2 seed Mahtomedi (24-2-2)
Overview: Give New Ulm credit. Everyone just assumed the Section 3 champ would be Luverne. Many of us put that not in pencil, but in ink, leading up to the postseason. But New Ulm figured out a way to outscore Luverne and win the section title game 7-5 to get back to state. The Eagles have three 25-plus goal scorers, and one 30-goal scorer, Ethan Kraus (33-19--52). Mahtomedi can't overlook those guys or they'll pay for it. Mahtomedi is at state for the first time since 2010 and has its top eight scorers back from last season. The Zephyrs feature four players with 34 or more points and they haven't lost since Jan. 8.
N.U. leaders: Sr. Colin Huffman (26-36--62); Sr. Brandon Helget (26-36--62); Jr. Ethan Kraus (33-19--52); Sr. goalie Senior Matt Berkner (17-6-2, 2.31 GAA, .907 save pct.)
Mahtomedi leaders: Jr. Jack Becker (25-35--60); Sr. Kellen Campbell (17-23--40); Jr. Jack Heinsch (19-19--38); Jr. goalie Will Swanson (24-2-2, 2.24, .910)
The pick: This Mahtomedi team is deep and balanced, and it's playing with a load of confidence right now after some big wins over top Class AA schools (state tourney entrants Hill-Murray and STA) in the second half of the season: Mahtomedi 6, New Ulm 1.
• • •
1 p.m. — New Prague (20-8-0) vs. No. 3 East Grand Forks (23-4-0)
Overview: New Prague returns to state for a second consecutive season and second time overall. The Trojans had a couple of tough games in the Section 1 tourney, surviving a 2-1 game against eighth-seeded Rochester Lourdes in the quarterfinals, then outlasting Northfield 2-1 in the title game. Likewise, defending state champ EGF had to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to force OT and beat Thief River Falls 4-3 to get back to state. New Prague will have to find some scoring depth if it hopes to advance. EGF senior F Dixon Bowen (56 pts) is a Mr. Hockey finalist and one point from setting the program's single season scoring record.
N.P. leaders: Jr. Alex Gregor (31-24--55); Sr. Ben Witt (13-31--44); Jr. Zach Davis (16-24--40); Sr. goalie Conner Wagner (19-8-0, 2.13 GAA, .912 save pct.)
EGF leaders: Sr. Dixon Bowen (25-31-56); Jr. Tanner Tweten (19-23-42); Jr. Grant Loven (11-17-28); goalie Josh Weber (16-3-0, 1.51, .925); goalie Garrett Lieberg (7-1-0, 1.80, .920)
The pick: EGF lost some talented players from last season, but the Green Wave play a tough schedule and they still have a lot of guys back from last season, including senior forward and Mr. Hockey finalist Dixon Bowen: EGF 4, New Prague 2.
• • •
6 p.m. — Spring Lake Park (16-11-1) vs. No. 1 Hermantown (25-2-1)
Overview: SLP is making its first-ever state tournament appearance and, as the luck of the draw went, it got matched up with top-seeded and ticked-off Hermantown. H'town has lost in the past five state championship games, including a 7-3 loss to East Grand Forks last year. SLP is a defensive-minded team, as evidenced by its 5-0 shutout victory against Chisago Lake in its section championship game.
SLP leaders: Sr. Jacob Nystrom (28-28--56); Sr. Deven Sunell (23-31--54); Jr. Zach Benson (4-18--22); Jr. goalie Aaron Furlano (16-10-1, 2.98 GAA, .903 save pct).
Hermantown leaders: Sr. Ryan Kero (29-37--66); Sr. Nate Pionk (31-32--63); Jr. Cole Koepke (20-22--42); Jr. goalie Luke Olson (21-1-1, 1.51, .932).
The pick: This is a game Hermantown should win. And the Hawks generally don't lose games they're supposed to win. Nothing different here: Hermantown 7, SLP 1.
• • •
8 p.m. — No. 5 St. Cloud Apollo (22-4-2) vs. No. 4 Breck (21-7-0)
Overview: This should be the best matchup of the opening round, and, of course, the latest-starting. Generally the "8 p.m." game actually sees the puck drop about 8:45 p.m. Remember waiting all day for a couple of these games, Lourdes fans? It's hard to say what the long day and wait will do to the players, who have to keep their minds and bodies busy for a full day, but don't want to wear themselves down. Watch for this game to come down to goaltending. Breck's Stephen Headrick (1.29 GAA) and SCA's Nick Althaus (1.47 GAA) have been almost unbeatable this season.
SCA leaders: Jr. D Tanner Breidenbach (10-25--35); Sr. Jason Omann (18-15--33); Jr. Gino Lucia (17-15--32); Jr. Tyler Scott (18-15--33); Jr. goalie Nick Althaus (20-4--2, 1.47 GAA, .917 save pct.).
Breck leaders: Jr. Chase Ellingson (25-21-46); Jr. Will Blake (12-21--33); Sr. goalie Stephen Headrick (21-7-0, 1.29 GAA, .931 save pct.).
The pick: Breck's goaltender, Stephen Headrick, has been outstanding all season, allowing 38 goals in 28 games. That means Apollo will have to keep this close to have a chance. They'll do it, and they'll get the break they need in extra time to advance to the semis: St. Cloud Apollo 2, Breck 1, OT.
• • •
• Mahotomedi vs. East Grand Forks: EGF has a bunch of talented players, including a Mr. Hockey finalist in Dixon Bowen. The Green Wave lost four really talented defensemen from last season, though (two in the USHL, two in the NAHL) and that will show here: Mahtomedi 5, EGF 3.
• Hermantown vs. St. Cloud Apollo: Hermantown coach Bruce Plante told the Duluth News Tribune that his team has been very even-keeled this season, not a lot of ups and downs. That poise and experience will show this week: Hermantown 5, SCA 2.
• • •
Hermantown vs. Mahtomedi: I haven't gone out on much of a limb with these picks, I know, but history has shown that coaches know what they're doing when it comes to seeding teams in The Tourney, especially in the first round. It gets a little more even after the first day, and a little more difficult to pick winners. Count me in the group of Tourney watchers who would love to see Bruce Plante and Hermantown snap their streak of losses in the title game. BUT, Mahtomedi has been outstanding all season, too, and their wins in the second half of the season have been quite impressive. The Zephyrs are deep and led by one of the tourney's top scorers, junior F Jack Becker (25-35--60). They'll make the most of their first tourney appearance since 2010: Mahtomedi 4, Hermantown 3.