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'Almost perfect' chemistry helps separate NAHL’s Austin Bruins from divisional rivals

Bruins lead the way with six players at NAHL Top Prospects Tournament

NAHL TP Matthew Desiderio Austin.JPG
Matthew Desiderio found the back of the net Tuesday morning in Team Central’s 5-4 loss to Team South. The left-shot defenseman was one of six Austin players at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – As Steve Howard stood behind the bench this week at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, he didn’t need much of an introduction to six of the players on his roster.

On top of leading Team Central for two days, Howard has been busy this winter leading the Austin Bruins.

The sixth-year head coach was joined by six of his Austin players in Pittsburgh, which was the most any NAHL team sent to the event.

“We’re just super fortunate to bring so many guys and it’s a lot of fun to share the trip with them,” Howard said. “It’s a lot of fun being at this event and there’s pride involved for these kids. You want to represent yourself, your team, your division, and there’s people here watching.

"So it’s nice these kids are getting the opportunity to compete and get that exposure. It’s a great event every year and this year is no different.”


NAHL TP Steve Howard Austin.JPG
Steve Howard is in his sixth season behind the Austin bench. The Bruins currently sit atop the Central Division with 57 points and Austin (25-9-3-4) owns the NAHL's fourth-highest win percentage (.695).
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

Howard’s Bruins currently sit atop the Central Division with 57 points. Austin (25-9-3-4) also has the third-most points in the NAHL and the league’s fourth-highest win percentage (.695).

“We’re playing really well and we’re playing as a team right now,” Austin Salani said. “Our coaches have a system and a structure laid out for us right now and everyone is following it, but we’ve also just got a group of guys that are excited to work together.

“We’ve got a good mix of younger and older guys this year too and good chemistry. Everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the lineup and be successful.”

“Our chemistry away from the rink is almost perfect and we couldn’t ask for a better group of guys,” added fellow forward Walter Zacher. “It’s no surprise we’ve had the start we have and that chemistry definitely translates on the ice, because we all work together so well.”

Salani and Zacher were two of Austin’s six representatives in Pittsburgh this week, along with Howard behind the bench.

Parker Anderson, Matthew Desiderio, Bryan Gilman and Josh Giuliani joined them on the trip and both Anderson and Desiderio found the back of the net.

Team Central split its two games with a 3-1 win over Team East on Monday and a 5-4 loss to Team South Tuesday morning.

“It’s unbelievable playing in this event and it’s a great opportunity for all of us to showcase what we can do,” Salani said. “It’s a little surreal looking up into the stands and seeing so many (scouts, coaches, etc.). Obviously we were all invited to play here for a reason and you just want to put on a good showing for yourself.”


NAHL TP Matthew Desidererio.JPG
Austin defenseman Matthew Desiderio is still just 17 years old. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s a little bit of everything,” Howard said. “He’s a young kid but he sees the ice really well and jumps at the right moment. He’s a kid that’s way ahead of his years and reads the play so well.”
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

In the bigger picture, the number of Bruins in Pittsburgh this week is a direct reflection of the season it's been in southern Minnesota. And Howard’s roster surely isn’t lacking talent.

At the same time, the biggest key to Austin’s success has been a nine-letter word both Salani and Zacher mentioned above — chemistry.

Perhaps it’s fitting that chemistry followed the group to the Steel City. Zacher and Salani both quipped it probably gave them an unfair advantage as Team Central had a top line and defensive pair made up completely of Austin Bruins.

“Honestly this is one of the closest teams I’ve ever been on,” Salani said. “We don’t really have any individual groups, we’re just one big one and we’re all close friends. So to be able to share this experience with some of the guys, it’s special and it’s a fun time out here.

“We’re all competing for something out here but at the same time we can enjoy it together.”

Austin Salani faceoff.JPG
Austin Salani takes a faceoff during Monday's NAHL Top Prospects Tournament game. Salani was one of six Austin Bruins on Team Central's roster along with head coach Steve Howard.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

So far that chemistry has led to wins.

With 19 games left on the schedule, there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played. Austin currently owns a 13-point lead in the Central Division over Minot and looks to be comfortably in the playoff picture.

At the same time, those inside the Bruins’ locker room know it’s early February and it’s imperative they don’t let off the gas down the stretch.


“We have a target on our back because we’re in first but coach always tells us to flip that target and that we’re the predators, not the prey,” Salani said. “We want to continue climbing and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

“We have a little bit of a cushion but that cushion could go away really quick, so we can’t let up,” Howard added. “We’ve got a good group of kids that competes every night and they know what it takes. And we have to focus on doing the little things right every night.

“We’ve had some success this season but we’ve also had our ups and downs. So we have to make a hard push here at the end of the season.”

Jordan McAlpine is a junior and prospects reporter for The Rink Live.
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