Six teams advanced to the divisional finals of the NAHL Robertson Cup Playoffs after first-round series wins last week.
The St. Louis Bandits, Mahoning Valley Phantoms, Topeka RoadRunners and Springfield Jr. Blues all moved on with three-game sweeps, with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs downing the Wichita Falls Wildcats, 3 games to 1, and the Alexandria Blizzard ousting the Southern Minnesota Express, 3 games to 2.
With their series victory over the Alpena IceDiggers, the Phantoms secured the North Division’s berth to the Robertson Cup Championship - the league’s second - as St. Louis receives an automatic bid as tournament hosts.
Mahoning Valley will play the Bandits in the North Division finals.
“St. Louis has had our number pretty much all year, so I think we need to show them something,” said Phantoms forward Miles Winter, who scored the overtime game-winner in Game 3 on Thursday. “We need to prove a point; we need to show them we’re the top team in the North Division.”
The Jr. Blues, the No. 4 seed in the Central Division, took down the No. 1 seeded North Iowa Outlaws in three straight games, culminating with a 5-4 overtime win in Game 3 on Friday. Jon Gaffney scored two goals in that contest, including the OT game-winner, and two assists.
"It was a great two weekends of hockey for our players and our organization,” said Jr. Blues coach-GM Chris Wyler. “To sweep a team of North Iowa's caliber in the playoffs is great confidence-builder for us, but we’re certainly not looking any further than our next series against Alexandria.”
Wyler credits a full team effort for his club’s success against the Outlaws.
“The wins in this series were a direct result of 25 guys working together towards a common goal,” said the coach. “Our goaltending, defense and forwards all contributed. We spoke all year long about winning by committee and this series we did exactly that.”
In the other Central Division semis, the Blizzard, the No. 3 seed, earned a trip to the divisional finals with a 5-2 win over the Express in Game 5 on Sunday. Luke Nesper scored a goal and an assist in the series-clincher, while goaltender Ryan Leets made 30 saves.
The line of Brandon Bahnemann (four goals, two assists), Garrett Grimstad (two goals, four assists) and Kyle Clement (two goals, three assists) came up big for Alexandria against the Express.
“They really gave us a spark,” said Blizzard coach-GM Brad Willner. “They played very physical and were consistent the entire series.”
Alexandria will take on the Jr. Blues in the Central Division finals. The winner of that series will advance to the Robertson Cup Championship.
“Springfield is a very good team,” said Willner. “They have great speed, play a tight-checking defensive game and score on their opportunities. It should be an exciting series.”
“Alexandria is a big, strong, tough team which likes to play in transition, much the same as us, and we’re expecting a very competitive and tight series,” Wyler added.
In the South, the RoadRunners made quick work of the Tornado, ending their series on Friday with a 5-1 triumph. Aaron Gens connected for the game-winning goal and two assists in the Game 3 win.
"I was proud of our guys and how they kept focus,” said RoadRunners coach-GM Scott Langer. “We were happy with the sweep of course, but I still say that's a talented team that could do some damage if you let them. We stayed sharp and never really let them get going and that's why we had some success."
The RoadRunners will take on the Ice Dogs in the South Division finals. The winner will head to St. Louis to compete for the Tier II Junior A national championship.
“There's no question that Proff (Fairbanks coach-GM Rob Proffitt) will have his guys ready,” said Langer. “They have solid goaltending, as do we, and we've played some tight games with them this year.
“At the same time, our guys are healthy and rested and ready for the challenge. I expect a great series between two very good teams."
Fairbanks advanced after their series victory over Wichita Falls. Aaron Stonacek struck for two goals, including the game-winner, and two assists in the Ice Dogs’ Game 4 win on Saturday.