NAHL final four: How they got here
April 30, 2014
After a round of thrilling division finals this past weekend, which concluded on Monday, the Semi-Finals in the quest for the 2014 Robertson Cup are set.
As opposed the previous 10 years, when the divisional champions would meet at a host or neutral site and play a round-robin to determine a champion, the Semi-Finals has a new look and format this season.
#1 Fairbanks, #2 Topeka, #3 Austin and #4 Michigan were seeded 1-4 based upon their finish in the NAHL regular-season standings. #1 Fairbanks will host a best-of-three series with #4 Michigan. #2 Topeka will host a best-of-three-series against #3 Austin. In the case of both series, the Semi-Finals will begin Friday, May 2nd and conclude on Sunday, May 4th.
Next weekend, the winners of the two Semi-Finals series will meet for the Robertson Cup Championship. The higher seed team of the remaining two will be the host for all three games.
Here is a look at how each team got to this point:
Midwest Division Champions - #1 Fairbanks Ice Dogs
How they got here: It wasn’t easy for the Ice Dogs, who were pushed to the five-game limit in both their Midwest Division Semi-Final series against Kenai River and their Midwest Division Finals series against Wenatchee. It took an overtime goal by Kyle Lee in Game 5 for the Ice Dogs to advance. Out of the four teams remaining in the mix for the Robertson Cup, the Ice Dogs are the only one of the four who have won a Robertson Cup Championship, which came back in 2011. The Ice Dogs beat the Michigan Warriors in the title game that season, who ironically will be Fairbanks opponent in the Semi-Finals. Of the four remaining teams, the Ice Dogs have played the most playoff games (10) and also have the most playoff losses (4), so fatigue could be a factor. However, the Ice Dogs have an edge because they have a tremendous home ice advantage with an incredible fan base and because the travel to Alaska is significant for the visiting team. Plus, the idea of taking two of three games in Fairbanks against an Ice Dogs team loaded with veterans and nine NCAA Division I commitments is a daunting task.
South Division Champions - #2 Topeka RoadRunners
How they got here: After a South Division Semi-Finals sweep of the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, the RoadRunners had a rollercoaster of a South Division Finals series against the Amarillo Bulls. After going up 2-0 after the first two games in Amarillo, the RoadRunners returned to Topeka in prime position to claim the series at home and get some much needed rest. However, things didn’t go according to planned at home as the Bulls took the next two games, which forced a fifth and decisive game back in Amarillo on Monday. The RoadRunners would dig deep down and come through with a 6-2 win, winning the South Division playoff title for the second time since the club’s move to Topeka. It was a rare occurrence, but the road team won all five games in the South Finals. And, that stat is what may make the RoadRunners as capable as any of hoisting the Robertson Cup this season. Although they will have to be able to win at home in their Semi-Final series against the Austin Bruins, the fact that the RoadRunners have proven they can win both at home and on the road makes them a favorite. Combine all that with the fact that the RoadRunners have one of the league’s best goalies in PJ Bridges and forwards in Tyler Poulsen, and it can be said that Topeka’s best chance of winning their first Robertson Cup may be this season.
Central Division Champions - #3 Austin Bruins
How they got here: After several years of trying and coming close, the Austin Bruins found a way to get through the hurdle that was the Bismarck Bobcats in the maximum five games and advanced themselves to the NAHL’s final four. In the opening round, the Bruins were put to the test by the Minot Minotauros, but ultimately two wins in Minot got the club through the series and onto the Bobcats. In both cases, Austin won some big road games and will have to do the same when traveling to Topeka. One of the hidden benefits for the Bruins will be the relatively short road trip to Topeka of just over 400 miles. With the games being on Friday, Saturday and potentially Sunday, the faithful Bruins fanbase could show up in Topeka with some numbers that could prove to be supportive for Austin. That pales in comparison to the 3,000-mile trip that Michigan has to Fairbanks. Like the RoadRunners, the Bruins have one of the league’s best goaltenders in University of Minnesota recruit Nick Lehr and one of the best forwards in the league in Jay Dickman. The question that may face the Bruins is, now that they have finally gotten over the hurdle of winning their divisional playoff crown for the first time, do they have enough left in the tank both physically and emotionally to take it the next step? It is uncharted territory for Austin, who is the only team of the four without Robertson Cup final four experience.
North Division Champions - #4 Michigan Warriors
How they got here: Despite earning only 70 points during the regular season, the Michigan Warriors are the hottest team of the four remaining in the playoffs. The Warriors swept through the Janesville Jets in the North Division Semi-Finals, followed by a four-game triumph of the Port Huron Fighting Falcons in the North Division Finals. Simply put, the Warriors are playing their best hockey of the season at the most opportune time, which is right now. What the Warriors lack in home-ice advantage and regular season points, they make up for in the way they have managed the playoffs. While their opponent in the Semi’s, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, have played in 10 games and traveled to Kenai River and Wenatchee in the process, the Warriors have needed just seven games to get to this point and benefitted from their last series against Port Huron, in which they had just a one hour road trip, followed by a pair of home games. The other thing that Michigan has going for it is the hottest goalie in the league right now in Trevor Gorsuch. It is often said that a goalie can have as much impact on winning a championship as anyone else on the ice and Gorsuch has been that player through the first two rounds. He has allowed just seven goals in the seven Warrior playoff games, which includes three shutouts. Fairbanks may also want to watch out for forward Tyler Groat, who is tied for 2nd in the NAHL playoffs with five goals.