5 storylines to watch as Austin Bruins attempt to win first postseason title in 8 years
The Austin Bruins last played for the NAHL Central Division playoff championship in 2018. They last won it in 2015. Here are five things to watch as the Bruins attempt to reach the Robertson Cup.
AUSTIN, Minn. — For the first time in five years, the Austin Bruins are in the North American Hockey League Central Division Finals.
The best-of-5 series against the St. Cloud Norsemen begins with Games 1 and 2 at Riverside Arena at 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Games 3 and, if necessary, 4 are set for St. Cloud on May 12 and 13. A decisive Game 5, if needed, will be played at 5:05 p.m. on May 14 at Austin.
The series winner advances to the Robertson Cup tournament, a four-team playoff for the NAHL national championship, May 19-23 in Blaine.
Here are five storylines to watch as the Bruins attempt to win their first postseason division title since 2015:
1. Close Calls
There are no secrets between Bruins and Norsemen; they know each other well, they know tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, and which players to pay extra attention to.
The regular-season series between these teams couldn’t have been more even. They played a dozen teams, both teams winning six. Five of Austin’s six losses, however, were tight down to the wire — three of them came in shootouts, one regulation loss was by one goal and the other regulation loss was by two goals, but with the Norsemen scoring an empty-net goal late.
Just how evenly matched are these teams? The total goals scored in 12 matchups so far this season: Austin 33, St. Cloud 33.
“They’re structured, have some good coaches over there; Corey Millen has been around a long time,” Bruins head coach Steve Howard said. “Every time we play them it’s a chess match. A bounce here or there could change the game. If you have a shift off, miss an assignment or don’t execute, they can sting you pretty quick.”
2. Safe at Home
The Bruins battled for seven months to win the Central Division regular season championship. Their reward for that is home-ice advantage throughout the division playoffs. That was indeed an advantage for Austin in the first round, as it beat Minot in two close games at Riverside Arena to build a commanding 2-0 lead going into a hard-fought Game 3 at Minot, which the Bruins won 3-0 to sweep the series.
Austin went 3-1-2 against St. Cloud at Riverside Arena in the regular season, but four of those games went to overtime and three were decided in a shootout.
Still, Bruins players and coaches say home-ice advantage can be invaluable this time of year, particularly if Riverside Arena is packed — the team priced all tickets at just $5 for home games in the Central Division Finals.
“It’s a big deal to us and, obviously, with our fans, we want to create that great experience,” Bruins defenseman Bryan Gilman said. “We haven’t gone this far in the playoffs in awhile, so it’s good to start off the playoffs at home. It’s important to us to be here and play in front of our fans.”
3. Goalies On Center Stage
It came as no surprise after watching their play in the regular season, but Bruins goalie Trent Wiemken and Norsemen goalie Ethan Dahlmeir were outstanding — to say the least — in the opening round of the Central Division playoffs.
Both goalies backstopped their teams to three-game sweeps in the division semifinals, giving them a few extra days of rest between the semifinals and the division finals.
Wiemken went 3-0-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage in three games against Minot. He recorded one shutout — a 3-0 win on the road in Game 3 — and saved 78 of 85 shots he faced in the series.
Dahlmeir was equally impressive, going 3-0-0 with a miniscule 0.33 GAA and a lights-out save percentage of .986. The former Lakeville South standout recorded two shutouts in the series, stopping 71 of the 72 shots he faced.
Both goalies were also outstanding against each other’s teams in the regular season. Wiemken was 4-1-1 against the Norsemen, with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. Dahlmeier was 2-4-0 against Austin, but had a 1.97 GAA and a .936 save percentage.
4. Be ‘Special’
The secrets to success for Austin and St. Cloud in the first round were really no secrets at all. And it should make for an intriguing matchup to pay attention to in the division finals: Austin’s power play against St. Cloud’s penalty kill.
St. Cloud was perfect on the kill in its semifinals series against Aberdeen, stopping the Wings on all seven chances they had with a man-advantage.
Austin, meanwhile, was nearly unstoppable on the power play, scoring on 8 of 13 attempts, an astounding 61.5% success rate.
The Bruins were 3-for-4 in Game 1, 3-for-6 in Game 2 and 2-for-3 in Game 3.
Veteran forward Austin Salani did the most damage for the Bruins, scoring half of their power-play goals in the series against Minot.
All four of Salani’s goals in the series came on the power play, including all three goals scored in the series finale, a 3-0 Bruins victory at Minot.
On the other hand, the Bruins need to stay out of the box. Though St. Cloud struggled on the power play in its opening-round series (0-for-10), Austin can’t keep playing with fire. It swept Minot despite taking 24 penalties for 77 minutes in three games.
Austin was 16-for-19, or 84.2%, on the penalty kill, against Minot.
Enemies now, friends later (or before). That’s the case for a handful of players in this series.
St. Cloud goalie Ethan Dahlmeir and Austin captain/defenseman Jack Malinski played together for three seasons at Lakeville South High School. Dahlmeir was on the varsity from 2018-21, while Malinski played for the Cougars from 2017-21. South went to the Class AA state tournament all three years that Malinski and Dahlmeir were both on the varsity — 2019, 2020 and 2021. The Cougars made it to the state championship game in 2021, falling to Eden Praire in double-overtime.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Dahlmeir also has a connection to another Bruins defenseman, Jimmy Goffredo. The two were selected with back-to-back picks in the second round of the USHL Draft on Wednesday, both by the Des Moines Buccaneers.
Dahlmeir was taken No. 20 overall and Goffredo (6-0, 190) went one pick later, at No. 21. Goffredo has had an excellent rookie season in the NAHL, playing in 61 of Austin’s 63 games and recording 14 goals and 39 points.
A second Norsemen player, center Andrew Clarke, a St. Louis native, was picked by Des Moines a round later, at No. 39 overall. Clarke has 16 goals and 48 points in 51 games this season.
Austin center Gavin Morrissey (Round 2, No. 31 overall) and St. Cloud forward Kade Peterson (Round 13, No. 198) were both drafted by the Fargo Force, which won the Anderson Cup — given to the USHL team with the best regular-season record — this season.