Mid-season report: Central Division
At the half-way point of the season the Central division is becoming a one-team race. The Bismarck Bobcats (23-5-1, 47 points) have distanced themselves from the competition and enjoy the largest division lead at the break (12 points) than any other division leader in the NAHL. Bismarck has a lot of things on their side… experience, good coaching, a passionate fan base and arguably the best combination of team offense and defense in the league. Bismarck is one of only five teams currently in the NAHL with seven or more players with at least 20 points so far this year. Holy Cross recruit Castan Sommer and forward Francis DeAugustine are leading the offense, while Donald Olivieri, Danny Ray and Bryce Anderson are providing great depth and scoring on defense. With the departure of goaltender Ryan Faragher to St. Could State, the Bobcats haven’t missed a beat in goal as second-year netminder Tommy Burke is 3rd in the NAHL with 15 wins so far this season. The Bobcats have the league’s best penalty kill, but what the Bobcats do best, is play with a lead. Bismarck is a perfect 13-0-0 when leading after the 1st period and 13-0-0 when leading after the 2nd period. It is a good bet that with a solid second half of the season the Bobcats will reach 40 wins and a regular season division title, but the question that remains come April is can anyone in the division beat them in a best of five series come playoff time?
Behind Bismarck sit a trio of teams led by the Austin Bruins (16-10-3, 35 points). After a slow start to the season in which the Bruins only won once in their first four games, the team has gone 5-2-1 in their last eight games to move into 2nd place in the Central. Austin is led by Swedish defenseman Christian Folin, who is legitimate NAHL MVP candidate through the first half of the season. Folin is tied for the league lead in goals by a defenseman with 10 and leads the team with a +22 rating. The other player making noise as of late in Austin is goaltender Tyler Bruggeman. Now in his second year in the NAHL, Bruggeman ranks in the top 10 in the NAHL in wins, goals against average and save percentage. The Bruins have a top five penalty kill and are tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with nine. They key for Austin, who are one of many NAHL teams having a record year at the box office, will be to try and finish in one of the top two positions in the Central so they can secure home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.
Behind Austin, sit the Alexandria Blizzard (16-10-2, 34 points) and the Aberdeen Wings (16-13-2, 34 points) in a tie for 3rd place. Alexandria has stumbled as of late, dropping four of their last six after a torrid November in which the team posted an 8-1-1 record. The Blizzard are led by the NAHL goaltender of the month for November, Jacob Meyers, who has played in 17 of the team’s last 18 games. Meyers is in the top six in the NAHL in both goals against average and save percentage. Although the Blizzard have just one player with 20 or more points (Nick D’Avolio, 23 points), they have proven they can generate offense. Alexandria is 4th in the NAHL averaging over 35 shots per game, but they rank just 17th in goals for per game. The Blizzard appear headed for the playoffs, but the key will have to be more offensive output. With high-flying teams in the division like Bismarck and Aberdeen, the Blizzard will benefit from the return of second-year forward Thomas Williams, who despite missing half his team’s games this year because of injury, ranks tied for second on the team in goals. Tucker Coborn also has the potential to ignite the offense, while former Bismarck defenseman Charlie Aus and Michael Mooney have been solid along the blueline.
Tied with the Blizzard at the break are the Aberdeen Wings. The Wings are led by one of the best one-two scoring combinations in the league with Bemidji State recruit Cory Ward and forward Steve Obarzanek. Ward, who at just 18 years old is already in his second season in the NAHL, ranks 5th in league scoring with 39 points in just 28 games played. Obarzanek is tied for 2nd in league goal scoring with 21 goals. Defenseman Lane Mahoney is one of the better offensive blueliners in the league and forward Mack Ohnsted ranks 6th in NAHL assists with 24. After missing the playoffs in their first year last season, the Wings are a great bet to make the playoffs this year. However, like Austin and Alexandria, it will be key for the Wings to secure home ice in the 1st round of the playoffs because of their performance on home ice vs. road ice. The Wings pack almost every home game and the fans in Aberdeen provide an electric atmosphere, which really makes the Odde Ice Center a tough place to win, but the Wings are just 6-9-1 on the road so far this season, a stat that will have to change for any playoff success.
Rounding out the division in 5th place are the first-year Minot Minotauros (4-25-2, 10 points). The Minotauros have found it rough sledding in year one, having won a league-low four games so far. Minot had their first ever NAHL action at the Showcase and had a good showing, which included their first ever win and some close calls. However, life in the NAHL is a learning experience and the Minotauros dropped their next seven games following the Showcase. What has not wavered however has been the support from the Minot community. The Minotauros are one of a record 13 teams in the NAHL with an average attendance over 1,000 fans per game this season, and with the meat of the season still remaining, that number will rise. Minot treated their home faithful to two memorable home wins at Maysa Arena so far this year. Their signature win came on November 26th, as Minot defeated in-state rival Bismarck 2-1. Twin brothers Buster and Jake Hebda have been the leaders for Minot through the first half of the season. Buster leads with team in scoring with 16 points and is one of just three Minotauros players to play in all 31 games this season. Jake has a goals against average of less than 3.50 despite the fact the Minotauros as a team allow 4.16 goals per game. Jake’s save percentage also is hovering around 90%, which is a great sign that he is stopping plenty of rubber. The recent additions of Seth Blair and Austin Hoff continued strong play from Jack MacFarlane and Ben Hughes should make Minot competitive in the second half. Although a playoff berth seems far away at the moment, the Minotauros are gaining valuable experience and could be a spoiler come the end of the regular season for the rest of the Central teams who will be jockeying for home ice.
Next up in the NAHL mid-season reports: The Midwest Division