NAHL Weekend Preview: Divisional Semi-Finals
April 15, 2016
Eye on the Prize: 16 teams begin their quest for the Robertson Cup this weekend.
The song says that the holidays in December are the most ‘wonderful time of the year,’ but anyone in hockey will likely disagree with that as playoff time is here.
The North American Hockey League (NAHL) is no exception as the 2016 Robertson Cup Playoffs begin this weekend with eight Divisional Semi-Final series. It is all done in the quest for the Robertson Cup, the oldest junior hockey trophy in the United States.
16 teams have survived and advanced through the grueling 60-game regular season to now find themselves in position to make a run towards the Robertson Cup.
Division Semi-Finals (best of 5 series)
The Club seeded first in each division will compete in a best-of-five series with the fourth seeded Club in the same division. The Club seeded second in each division will compete in a best-of-five-series against the Club seeded third in the same division. The Club seeded higher in each division semifinal series has the right to host up to three games in Round 1, and the Club seeded lower in each division semifinal series must be able to host at least two games. The first Club to win three games in a division semifinal series will be declared the winner of the series and advance to the next round of playoff competition. The first Club to lose three games in a division semifinal series shall be eliminated from further playoff competition.
Central Division Semi-Finals
#1 Bismarck Bobcats vs. #4 Brookings Blizzard – It took until the final weekend of the regular season, but the Bobcats locked up 1st place in the division, while the Blizzard captured 4th place thanks to their wins tie-breaker over the Minnesota Magicians. Both goalies come into the series playing well. Bismarck’s Hunter Shepard finished the season leading the league in shutouts (8) and was 2nd in goals against average (1.90). Meanwhile, Josh Kuehmichel has won Central Division Star of the Week awards in back-to-back weeks heading into the playoffs. During the regular season, the Bobcats won eight of 12 games between the two teams.
#2 Minot Minotauros vs. #3 Austin Bruins – The Bruins come into the playoffs looking for consistency and haven’t won back-to-back games since March 11-12. They do however have history on their side. During the last three Robertson Cup Playoffs in 2013, 2014 and last year in 2015, the Bruins and Minotauros have met in the playoffs with the Bruins winning all three of those series. During the regular season, each team won four of the eight games played in the series. Five of the eight games were decided by a goal.
East Division Semi-Finals
#1 Aston Rebels vs. #4 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights – The East Champion Rebels enter the playoffs as winners of six of their last eight games, while the Knights list six of their last nine games. The season series was a competitive one between the two teams, who saw one another 16 times with each team winning eight times. The Rebels have several players who went through the NAHL playoffs last season while with the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, while the Knights are relatively inexperienced.
#2 New Jersey Titans vs. #3 Johnstown Tomahawks – The Tomahawks snatched home-ice advantage away from the Titans in Game 1 with a 5-3 win on the road. Casey Linkenheld had a hat-trick in the win. Game 2 on Friday now seems like a must-win for the Titans, who have to head to Johnstown for Games 3 and 4. New Jersey had the advantage in the season series, winning 10 of the 16 games. Andrew Romano had a goal and an assist for the Tomahawks in Game 1, while Darren Brady had two assists for the Titans.
Midwest Division Semi-Finals
#1 Fairbanks Ice Dogs vs. #4 Coulee Region Chill – The league’s top team, Fairbanks, who won the regular season crown with 49 wins and an NAHL record 101 points, host the Chill, who got into the playoffs during the last weekend of the season. The Chill are in an underdog role with nothing to lose. Outgoing head coach AJ Degenhardt has the full support and heart of his team and the Chill have very good goaltending. Three of the four games played in the season series were decided by a goal and two went to overtime. The Chill won the first two games on the road last season against the eventual champion Minnesota Wilderness, so don’t be surprised if the Chill give the Ice Dogs all they can handle. Statistically, Fairbanks has the league’s top scorer in Todd Burgess and the top goalie in Gavin Nieto.
#2 Janesville Jets vs. #3 Minnesota Wilderness – The defending Robertson Cup Champion Wilderness are looking to become the first team since the 2007 and 2008 St. Louis Bandits to win back-to-back cups. Their match-up with the Jets is a rematch of last year’s Robertson Cup National Semi-Finals when Minnesota went into Janesville and swept the Jets. This season, the Jets had an advantage over the Wilderness, winning eight of the 12 games during the regular season. Five of the 12 games were decided in shootout or overtime. While Jack LaFontaine is likely to get the call in goal for the Jets, the Wilderness will have to make a choice between Chase Munroe and Luke Kania. After losing the opening two games last season in the playoffs, the Wilderness on 10 straight on their way to the Cup.
South Division Semi-Finals
#1 Wichita Falls Wildcats vs. #4 Odessa Jackalopes – The last time the Odessa made the playoffs four years ago, Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets) was their goalie. Meanwhile, fresh of their first division title in team history, the Wildcats are the NAHL’s best home team and have won 19 straight games at home. The last time the Wildcats lost a home game was December 19th. The Jackalopes clinched their spot during the final weekend of the regular season and when firing on all cylinders, are a very dangerous team that can score and be physical. Wichita Falls won seven of the 10 games in the season series.
#2 Lone Star Brahmas vs. #3 Topeka RoadRunners – The Brahmas, who made it all the way to the Robertson Cup National Semi-Finals a year ago, have the fire power and the defensive corps to get back to the NAHL’s final four, but will have to first try and make it through perennial playoff contender Topeka. The two teams met in a physical series last weekend in Texas and Games 1 and 2 are expected to be the same. The RoadRunners are going to have to get good goaltending and keep the score low to try and advance, while the Brahmas have one of the league’s best penalty kill and allow the fewest shots per game of any team in the league. Each team won four of the eight games in the season series.