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NAHL Weekend Playoff Preview

April 10, 2015
The 2015 North American Hockey League (NAHL) Robertson Cup Playoffs get into full swing this weekend as all four divisions will begin or continue their Semi-Finals.  While the Midwest, North and South Divisions all get started with their respective Semi-Final Series, the continuation of the Central Division Semi-Finals will take place on Friday. Austin and Minot both lead their series 2-0.  No team has comeback from an 0-2 deficit to win a five-game series in the NAHL since the 2009-10 St. Louis Bandits.
 
All Semi-Final series are a best of five format with the first team to win three games moving onto the Division Finals.
 
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Central Division Semi-Finals (Austin leads best of five series, 2-0)
#1 Austin vs. # 4 Aberdeen
Game 1: Aberdeen 5 @ Austin 8
Game 2: Aberdeen 0 @ Austin 4
Game 3: 4/10 - Austin at Aberdeen 7:15pm
Game 4: 4/11 - Austin at Aberdeen 7:15pm*
Game 5: 4/17 - Aberdeen at Austin 7:05pm*
*if necessary
 
Austin has dominated the series so far, capturing the first two games at home. Trevor Boyd and Liam Feeney are leading the Bruins with four points in the first two games and Nico Sturm has three goals.  After goalie Jake Kielly posted a shutout for the Bruins in Game 2, the biggest question may be who Austin starts in Game 3 in goal. Meanwhile, Will Hammer saw his hat-trick go for naught in Game 1 and the Wings were shutout in Game 2. The Wings have to get more shots on goal, as they managed just 44 in the first two games in Austin.
 
Central Division Semi-Finals (Minot leads best of five series, 2-0)
#2 Minot vs. #3 Bismarck
Game 1: Bismarck 1 @ Minot 4
Game 2: Minot 4 @ Bismarck 2
Game 3: 4/10 - Bismarck at Minot 8:05pm
Game 4: 4/11 - Minot at Bismarck 7:15pm*
Game 5: 4/17 - Bismarck at Minot 7:35pm*
*if necessary
 
The Minotauros return home for Game 3 with a chance to clinch the series on home ice.  The Bobcats offense has gone cold at the wrong time, as Bismarck has scored just three goals in the first two games, while managing only 43 shots on goal. Minot goalie Atte Tolvanen has had something to do with that stopping 40 of the 43 shots in the first two games. Nick Monfils had a hat-trick in the Game 1 win last Friday and James Mathias leads the Minotauros with five points in the two games.

Midwest Division Semi-Finals (best of 5)
#1 Fairbanks Ice Dogs vs. #4 Minnesota Magicians
Game 1: 4/10 - MN Magicians at Fairbanks, 7:30pm
Game 2: 4/11 - MN Magicians at Fairbanks, 7:30pm
Game 3: 4/13 - MN Magicians at Fairbanks, 7:00pm
Game 4: 4/17 - Fairbanks at MN Magicians, 7:15pm*
Game 5: 4/18 - Fairbanks at MN Magicians, 7:05pm*
*if necessary
 
Games 1 and 2 are in Fairbanks. If the Ice Dogs are ahead 2-0 after the first two games, game 3 will be played in the Richfield Ice Arena in Richfield, Minnesota. If the series is tied at one win apiece or the Magicians have a 2-0 lead, game 3 will be played at 7 Monday night at the Big Dipper. Fairbanks, 40-16-4, took advantage of the 12-day break to heal some injuries and get ready for the Magicians. The Ice Dogs, according to head coach Trevor Stewart, had three healthy defensemen for the Kenai River series. Regardless of his team’s status, head coach Trevor Stewart reminded the Ice Dogs that everything is fresh when it comes to the playoffs. “It’s definitely a new season and you can’t take anything for granted,’’ Stewart said. “They’re in the playoffs for a reason, and we are, too.
 
The Magicians, 21-35-4, ended the regular season with five losses in their last six games, including a non-divisional split against the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings in Richfield on March 27-28. The Magicians won 2-1 in the series opener and lost 4-1 in the regular-season finale. The Ice Dogs finished 3-1-0 against the Magicians during the regular season. Fairbanks swept 7-4 and 4-2, respectively, on Nov. 21-22. The Magicians grabbed a 4-1 win on Dec. 11 at the Richfield Ice Arena and the Ice Dogs won there by the same score on Dec. 13. Vaughan Ahrens led the Magicians while playing in 29 regular-season contests. He compiled a 12-12-2-1 mark with one shutout, a 3.37 GAA and a .906 saves percentage.
 
Midwest Division Semi-Finals (best of 5)
#2 Minnesota Wilderness vs. #3 Coulee Region Chill
Game 1: 4/10 - C. Region at MN Wilderness, 7:05pm
Game 2: 4/11 - C. Region at MN Wilderness 7:05pm
Game 3: 4/17 - MN Wilderness at C. Region 7:00pm
Game 4: 4/18 - MN Wilderness at C. Region 7:00pm*
Game 5: 4/20 - C. Region at MN Wilderness 7:05pm*
*if necessary
 
The Wilderness dominated the season series against the Chill this season, winning seven of the eight meetings.  However, that one loss came during the last weekend of the regular season and that prevented the Wilderness from claiming the Midwest Division title. The two clubs played four times in the month of March. The Wilderness are seeking their first playoff series win, after falling in five games last year in the Division Semi-Finals. With plenty of offense, the biggest question for the Wilderness entering the series may be who will start in goal, be it Ryan Anderson or Brock Kautz.
 
The Chill have struggled against the Wilderness this season, winning just one of their eight meetings, but they’ve actually found some success with their power play. Coulee Region scored seven goals on 35 power-play attempts (20 percent) in those eight games, a big improvement from its season average. As physical as the games got, combining for 69 penalties over the last two games, special team is likely going to play a key factor. “They’ve got an Olympic-sized sheet, so there’s more open ice up there,” Chill head coach AJ Degenhardt said. “But when we’re down here playing, I would imagine it’ll be pretty much the same thing you saw (in the final weekend), which is why we need to focus on the power play and penalty kill … because I think that’s going to play a pretty big role.”
 
North Division Semi-Finals (best of 5)
#1 Janesville Jets vs. #4 Michigan Warriors
Game 1: 4/10 – Michigan at Janesville, 7pm
Game 2: 4/11 – Michigan at Janesville, 7pm
Game 3: 4/17 – Janesville at Michigan, 7pm
Game 4: 4/18 – Janesville at Michigan, 7pm*
Game 5: 4/20 – Michigan at Janesville, 7pm*
*if necessary
 
All indications are that the Jets should be able to handle the Warriors in this series, but that is why they play the game. The Jets won all eight games during the regular season in the series with Michigan. Janesville is 24-4-2 in home games. They've won 21 of their last 22 games at the Janesville Ice Arena. “I don't think we're going to know what type of team we have until if we get out of our division,” Jets head coach Joe Dibble said. “We've played them  (the division rivals). We know how to prepare and know what to expect. But the other teams are such an unknown. We won't know unless we get out of our division, and that's where the true test is going to come.”
 
The Warriors will likely rely on goaltending to get them through and pull the upset of the Jets. Michigan has been in playoff mode for over a month and got in the final day of the regular season. That was thanks in large part to goalie Chase Munroe, who was the NAHL Goalie of the Month in March.  The Warriors (25-26-9) spent most of the regular season near the bottom in the NAHL North standings but won eight of their nine games in March, including a pair of shootout wins over the weekend against Sault Ste. Marie, to edge Johnstown by a point for the fourth and final playoff spot. "Credit goes to the team. They kept believing in each other, kept supporting each other. No matter what we do, I still tell the guys you're playing for the name on the back of your sweater and you're playing for the name on the front,” said Warriors head coach Moe Mantha. “There's a way to play the game and have pride, and these guys still have to preserve their dream."
 
North Division Semi-Finals (best of 5)
#2 Keystone Ice Miners vs. #3 Soo Eagles
Game 1: 4/10 - Soo at Keystone, 7:30pm
Game 2: 4/11 - Soo at Keystone, 7:30pm
Game 3: 4/17 - Keystone at Soo, 7:30pm
Game 4: 4/18 - Keystone at Soo 7:30pm*
Game 5: 4/20 - Soo at Keystone 7:30pm*
*if necessary
 
The series couldn’t be more even with each club winning four times during the regular season in the eight games played.  The Ice Miners finished the regular season with two of the top three save percentages in the NAHL between their pipes. Alex Blankenburg (.932 SV%) won 17 games while Nick Kossoff (.931 SV%) finished in a second place tie with 6 shutouts. Each ‘tender won twice against the Eagles, evenly splitting eight games with four starts each. The Ice Miners team goal total of 153 was the 2nd lowest among all NAHL playoff qualifiers, so goalies will likely be the key to the series. 
 
The Eagles will lean on Chad Catt in goal to try and advance. Catt went 1-1-0 with a .932 save percentage against the Ice Miners while Jack Berry went 1-2-0, with an impressive 1.67 goals against average. The Eagles are led by forward Trevor Cope (Michigan Tech commit) who racked up 24 goals and 30 assists during the regular season. Sandis Zolmanis also reached the 50 point mark with 13 goals and 38 assists. Brad Pung led the way in head-to-head scoring with 2 goals and 4 assists in the eight games against the Ice Miners during the regular season. Soo’s 182 goals was the 2nd highest mark in the North Division.
 
South Division Semi-Finals (best of 5)
#1 Lone Star Brahmas vs. #5 Wenatchee Wild
Game 1: 4/10 – Wenatchee at Lone Star, 7:30pm
Game 2: 4/11 – Wenatchee at Lone Star, 7:30pm
Game 3: 4/17 – Lone Star at Wenatchee, 7:30pm
Game 4: 4/18 – Lone Star at Wenatchee, 7:30pm*
Game 5: 4/21 – Wenatchee at Lone Star, 7:30pm*
*if necessary
 
In four head-to-head games this season, the Brahmas hold a 2 – 1 – 1 record against the Wild with a 1 – 0 – 1 record on home ice. Lone Star outscored Wenatchee 15 – 13 in the four games with only one game decided by a margin greater than a single goal. Lone Star made a late season push to climb to the top seed in the NAHL South Division and therefore had a first round bye as Wenatchee had to play their way into the First Round in a Play-In series against the Corpus Christi Icerays. The 5th seeded Wild continued their late season hot streak knocking off 4th seed Corpus Christi in two games on the Icerays’ home ice. Wenatchee possesses a lot of team speed, which can present some problems for Lone Star. The Brahmas will have to use their size and strength to play a physical game and make it uncomfortable for the Wild to handle the puck. On average Lone Star skaters are over an inch taller and 12 pounds heavier than the Wenatchee skaters. However, they have to be disciplined about their approach and limit trips to the penalty box because the Wild simply do not give up a lot of power play opportunities and the Brahmas can’t get into a special teams battle despite their superior special teams numbers.
 
This past week in Corpus Christi, the Wild won a pair of 3 – 2 games to move into Round 1 of the playoffs. In game one, Wenatchee got a first period goal from David Powlowski and from Brendan Harris in the second to go into the third period tied at two. After a scoreless third, Chris Jones scored at the 2:13 mark for the game winner.Zach Quinn made 31 saves to pick up the win. In game two the Wild jumped out to a two goal lead in the first off goals from Colin Burston and Mike Coyne. August Von Ungern-Sternberg put them up three midway through the third before Corpus Christi made a comeback effort that fell just short. Michael Bullion was in net for the series clenching game and faced 26 shots in the win.

South Division Semi-Finals (best of 5)
#2 Topeka RoadRunners vs. #3 Wichita Falls Wildcats
Game 1: 4/10 - Wichita Falls at Topeka, 7:05pm
Game 2: 4/11 - Wichita Falls at Topeka, 7:05pm
Game 3: 4/13 - Topeka at Wichita Falls, 7:05pm
Game 4: 4/14 - Topeka at Wichita Falls 7:05pm*
Game 5: 4/18 - Wichita Falls at Topeka 7:05pm*
*if necessary
 
Topeka enters the playoffs with a 25-3-2 home record, while the Wildcats went 16-10-4 on the road. RoadRunners coach Scott Langer hopes his team takes full advantage of the confines of Landon Arena, where it hasn’t lost since Feb. 28. “Any time you have a playoff game in your building, you have to take advantage,” Topeka head coach Scott Langer said. “You don’t want to let the series swing in their favor. We are in the situation we want. Now we just have to protect it and own it.” Langer said a key to shutting down the Wildcats’ potent offense is to be aware of who’s on the ice at all times. “They’re a deep hockey team,” Langer said. “They have four lines, and they bring them all at you. I think we’re a pretty good matchup though. We’ll just have to be aware of their personnel on the ice and what each of them is capable of.”
 
The Wildcats led the league in scoring and also had the top power play, which scored three times last weekend. Tommy Apap registered a team-high four points in last week's sweep of Rio Grande Valley, but eight different Wildcats scored their nine goals. "It couldn't get any closer with an opponent," Wildcats head coach John LaFontaine said. "They're deep. That's the one thing we always felt with Topeka. There are some other teams that would come at you with one or two high-end lines, but it's hard to match up against Topeka. On any given night, their third or fourth line is their first line." For the longest time, Topeka was one of the toughest places for the Wildcats to win. From the start of the 2009-10 season until late in 2012-13, Wichita Falls was 2-13-2 in Kansas. But the Wildcats swept a series late in 2012-13 and have posted a 5-4-1 record on the RoadRunners' home ice since then. This year, Wichita Falls was 1-2-1, suffering one loss in overtime and another by one goal.
 
 
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