Talk about parity: Just one point separated the top three teams in the Central Division, with the fourth-place Bismarck Bobcats trailing the division-champion Alexandria Blizzard by only five.
In semifinals, the Blizzard will face off against the Bobcats, while the No. 2-seeded Coulee Region Chill will take on the Owatonna Express.
Alexandria Blizzard vs. Bismarck Bobcats
The Alexandria Blizzard came out of nowhere to seize the division’s regular-season title, winning its last three games to leapfrog both Coulee Region and Owatonna.
Defense keyed Alexandria’s last-season surge, and it’ll need that to continue as its faces off against the defending Robertson Cup champion Bismarck Bobcats in the opening round.
“We’ve done a great job defensively the last month and that’s the main reason why we were able to clinch the division,” said Blizzard assistant coach Jeff Crouse. “It helps out our goalies and lets our offense be more consistent.”
On the flip side, the Bobcats plan on keeping an eye on the Blizzard’s top offensive guns, among them Mercyhurst College recruit Nardo Nagtzaam, who finished second in NAHL scoring with 87 points on 36 goals.
“We know they have power upfront and are skilled,” said Bobcats head coach Layne Sedevie. “We have to limit their time and space all over the ice and not let their skill beat us; we know they’ll make plays if you let them.”
In the regular season, the Blizzard held a lopsided advantage over the Bobcats after putting together a dominating 10-2 record. The teams’ latest meeting? The final game of the regular-season - a 5-4 overtime win for the Blizzard that propelled Alexandria to the division title.
“We know it’s a new season and what happened between us and Bismarck this year doesn’t matter,” said Crouse. “They’re the defending champs and we know we’ll have our hands full.”
The Bobcats are led offensively by Matthew Gates, who posted 58 points on 27 goals in the regular season. At the other end of the ice, Bismarck boasts one of the top goaltenders in the league in St. Cloud State University recruit Ryan Faragher, who backstopped the team to its Robertson Cup championship last season.
“Bismarck is a big, physical team that has a great goalie,” said Crouse. “They have some guys upfront who can put the puck away, and they have some experience and know how to win in the playoffs.”
“We have to get off to a good start, and we have to get back to what works for us and keep things simple,” Sedevie said of his team heading into the postseason. “Our guys are ready for the challenge.”
The Blizzard is also hoping to reap the benefits of home-ice advantage as the series kicks off at Alexandria’s Runestone Community Center on Friday.
“It gives us more rest and lets us relax and prepare much easier than it would be if we had to travel this weekend,” said Crouse, whose team played its last nine regular-season games at home. “Our home record lately has been great and our crowd support had been awesome down the stretch. We’re look forward to playing in front of our fans.”
Coulee Region Chill vs. Owatonna Express
When it comes to sizing up two evenly matched teams, look no further than the Coulee Region Chill and Owatonna Express.
Both finished the regular season with 72 points, with Coulee Region winning the tie-breaker - most wins with 33 - to nail down the division’s second seed.
Chill head coach Garrett Strot is anticipating an entertaining series from the first drop of the puck.
“We’ve had some really good games against (the Express) this year,” said Strot. “Both teams skate well and the games have been up and down.”
Head-to-head, though, the Express held a decisive advantage, forging an impressive 6-1-1 record over the Chill in the regular season. In the teams’ latest meetings earlier this month, the Express put together a 1-0-1 record.
Air Force recruit Ben Persian, who struck for 24 goals for 48 points, led the Express offensively in the regular season.
Owatonna also showcases a top-flight goaltender in Charles Williams, who posted 27 victories during the regular season to go along with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
“Owatonna has very good forwards with speed,” praised Strot. “When they get the puck, they go and are dangerous on the rush. They also have a very good goalie who’s been tough all year.”
The Chill has a number of offensive weapons, namely forwards Zac Frischmon, who totaled 65 points in the regular season, and Connor Gaarder, who put up 61.
Its goaltending tandem of Paul Moberg, also an Air Force recruit, and Aaron Davis have played major roles in the team’s success, too.
“They’re a very fast-attacking, fast-transition team,” said Express head coach Chuck Linkenheld. “They’ve spent much of the year in first place for a reason. They have all the tools. We respect them, as we do all of our division opponents.”
And although the Chill missed an opportunity to lock up the regular-season division title last weekend - it lost all three of its games - it’s looking forward to wiping the slate clean this weekend.
“Our players were disappointed with not getting a win last weekend, but, this week, a whole new season begins and they’re excited to be in the playoffs,” said Strot. “This is what you play for - a chance to move on.”
The series gets underway on Friday, and Linkenheld is eager to see the level of competitiveness his charges bring to the table.
“Our team is a tight-knit family; we’re with each other and for each other,” said the coach. “We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to win, and now it comes down to who executes.”