5 reasons why the Austin Bruins are in the Robertson Cup for the first time in 8 years
The Austin Bruins are back in the Robertson Cup, the championship tournament of the North American Hockey League, for the first time since 2015. It's been a full team effort to get there.
AUSTIN, Minn. — First it was defenseman Jimmy Goffredo.
Fellow blue-liner Jack Malinski did it the next night. A week later it was Austin Salani. Then Sam Christiano, Walter Zacher and Matthew Desiderio all took a turn.
That’s six times in seven North American Hockey League playoff games this spring that the Austin Bruins have scored the first goal in a game. Coincidentally, the Bruins have won six of the seven playoff games they’ve played so far.
Six wins is what it takes to win a Central Division playoff championship and advance to the Robertson Cup, the NAHL’s four-team national championship tournament that begins Friday at Fogerty Arena in Blaine.
“No, we’re not doing anything differently or more important than we have all year,” Bruins head coach Steve Howard said last week. “We just want good starts to every game. Having a good start means imposing our will on them, making sure we’re playing the right way and we’re on the right side of pucks.”
Austin scored the first goal in all three games of the Central Division semifinals against Minot, a series it swept. It scored first at Riverside Arena in Games 1 and 2 of the Central Division Finals against St. Cloud. The Norsemen snapped that streak in Game 3 of the Finals, last Friday at St. Cloud, but Austin answered with five consecutive goals to win that game 5-1.
Then Desiderio scored the first goal of Game 4 on Saturday at St. Cloud, a game that the Bruins won 2-1 in overtime to seal the postseason division title. That victory puts Austin in the Robertson Cup for the first time since 2015.
The Bruins open a best 2-out-of-3 national semifinal series against the Maryland Black Bears at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Fogerty Arena. Game 2 is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday.
The Oklahoma Warriors and Minnesota Wilderness will meet in the other national semifinal series. The national championship game is set for Tuesday, May 23, at 7 p.m.
“At the end of the day, most playoff games are tight games,” said Howard, in his sixth season as Austin’s head coach. “It’s not whether we score first or not. It’s just that every goal matters, that’s the bottom line. Even if the other team scores first, we need to come back with a good shift right away. It’s a game of momentum.
“We’re not thinking about (scoring first), we’re just thinking about having a good start and playing the right way.”
Here are four other reasons why the Bruins are in the Robertson Cup for the first time in eight years:
Focus on the big prize
From the time the Bruins sealed the Central Division regular-season championship on March 30, no one in the locker room or on the coaching staff has seemed satisfied. Happy, yes. But not satisfied.
The team made a list of goals at the start of the season and, to a man, they take that list seriously. They’ve been able to put a check mark in four boxes so far: 1. Earning home-ice advantage in the division playoffs; 2. Winning the regular season division title; 3. Winning a first-round playoff series; and 4. Winning the division postseason championship.
Two boxes remain: 5. Winning a national semifinal series; and 6. Winning the Robertson Cup.
“We’ve had a ton of goals since the beginning of the year,” Bruins goalie Trent Wiemken said after the Game 4 win against St. Cloud on Saturday. “We won the regular season title, now we just got that playoff title. We still have one more big one on our list. We’ve had a great time this season, we’re super excited (to play in the Robertson Cup), but we’re not done yet.”
The Bruins have at least nine players who have been a captain or an alternate captain either with the Bruins, their high school team, or both. That shows on and off the ice.
Two prime examples of different players leading at different times occurred in Game 4 of the division finals at St. Cloud. At one point in the third period, the Bruins took two penalties less than four minutes apart.
St. Cloud took the Bruins’ penalty killers out of their system for a short stretch, had them running around in their zone. When a whistle finally blew play dead, Wiemken didn’t hesitate to get after his teammates. The Bruins killed the rest of the penalty successfully and allowed a total of only six shots over the final 30 minutes of play.
The Bruins also had to kill off three penalties in the second period.
Defenseman and captain Jack Malinski — who was fourth on the team in scoring during the regular season — rarely left the ice. He came up clutch, blocking at least five shots on those kills. He also was on the ice for more than 7 minutes of the 10 minutes played in the overtime session. That effort and selflessness are what made him the team’s captain to begin with.
“It’s always fun to play in those really close games,” Wiemken said. “Being a rookie, it was awesome to get that first (overtime win to win a series). As a goalie (in those situations), you just have to take things one shot at a time, not look ahead, play your game and stay focused.”
Finding ways to win
Perhaps the best trait this Bruins team has had all season is its ability to adapt. Whether it’s playing on the road in a hostile, sold-out arena in Minot, or it’s playing in front of fewer than 300 fans on the road; whether it’s playing in a tight game or a blowout, the Bruins have shown all season — and in the playoffs — an ability to play their game and block out the surroundings.
In the postseason alone, Austin has won twice in overtime — including the series-clinching win at St. Cloud last Saturday in Game 4 of the Central Division Finals — and twice by four or more goals.
Austin’s only playoff loss so far this spring is a 4-3 overtime setback against St. Cloud in Game 1 of the division finals, a play on which Austin’s Isaak Brassard took a high-stick to his face in the Norsemen zone, but play was allowed to continue and the Norsemen scored on an odd-man rush to end the game.
The Bruins’ ability to play in and win tight games didn’t just appear magically once the postseason started. They had 17 regular-season games go to OT, 12 of which went to shootouts. Austin also played in another 17 games that were decided by one goal or by empty-net goals that made it a two-goal final margin.
Trent Wiemken was a late, free-agent addition to the Bruins main tryout camp 10½ months ago. The Fargo Davies High School standout went 23-4-0 as a senior and backstopped his team to the state championship game in North Dakota, but his phone was mostly silent when it came to interest from NAHL or USHL teams.
Wiemken came to Austin for the week-long tryout camp last June with nothing to lose. He left at the end of that week having given the Bruins coaching staff no choice but to keep him. Wiemken made the absolute most of his opportunity, and has continued to do so throughout this season.
With starter Ethan Robertson sidelined due to injuries and illnesses in late October and early November, Wiemken went 5-0-1 in a six game stretch where he allowed just 10 total goals.
When Robertson suffered a season-ending upper-body injury in early February, Wiemken took over as the go-to guy in goal and hasn’t let up.
His combination of skill and belief in himself has allowed the Bruins to play confidently in front of him.
Wiemken enters the Robertson Cup with a 6-0-1 postseason record, a 1.65 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.
If the Bruins are going to have success this week in Blaine, he’ll be a big reason why.