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A look inside the NAHL Division Finals

April 18, 2012

Deja vu: Fairbanks and Wenatchee meet yet again in the West Division Finals.

Central Division Finals
#3 Austin Bruins vs. #1 Bismarck Bobcats
(Bismarck 2011-12 record vs. Austin: 7-4-1)
(Austin 2011-12 record vs. Austin: 5-6-1)
Breakdown:  This series has all the makings of one that is going to be close judging by the two team’s regular season records against one another.  If the Bruins are looking for the silver lining in the series it may be the fact they won the last three regular season meetings against the Bobcats.  However, Bismarck did win the season series.  Each team played four games in the Division Semi-Finals and should have plenty of rest before the series begins on Friday in Bismarck.  Jeremy Finger and Charlie Adams led the Bruins in scoring this season against Bismarck, both scoring nine points in the 12 games played.  Shane Omdahl led the Bobcats in scoring against the Bruins this season with 10 points in 11 games.  Austin is uncharted territory, having never been to the NAHL playoffs let alone a Divisional Final with a trip to the Robertson Cup on the line.  The Bobcats do have playoff experience on their side having won the Robertson Cup back in 2010 and having won the Central Playoffs last season, only to lose to the Michigan Warriors in the Robertson Cup play-in series that existed back in 2011.  Tyler Bruggeman is expected to get the start in goal for the Bruins, however the biggest question heading into the series is who will get the start for Bismarck in between the pipes?  Tommy Burke, who played the majority of the regular season, was replaced in Games 3 and 4 in the series with Aberdeen by Aaron Nelson, who promptly posted two wins and stopped 59 of 62 shots.

Midwest Division Finals
#3 Springfield Jr. Blues vs. #1 St. Louis Bandits
(St. Louis 2011-12 record vs. Springfield: 7-5-0)
(Springfield 2011-12 record vs. St. Louis: 5-7-0)
Breakdown: Despite seeing each other 12 times during the regular season, not one of the 12 games played between the Bandits or the Jr. Blues went to overtime or a shootout.  Springfield is coming off a 1-0 win on Sunday in Game 5 in Janesville, while St. Louis cruised through their Semi-Final series with Coulee Region sweeping the Chill in three games and allowing just one goal.  The Jr. Blues did win three of the last four regular season games against the Bandits.  St. Louis is looking for their first trip to the Robertson Cup since 2010.  The year prior in 2009, they the won their third consecutive cup.  Meanwhile, the Jr. Blues are looking for their first trip to the Robertson Cup Tournament since 2004, when it was ironically held in Frisco, Texas and the Jr. Blues took home a 3rd place finish.  Chris Sitler and Kyle Cook did the majority of scoring for Springfield against St. Louis this season.  Sitler, who scored the lone goal in the Jr. Blues Game 5 win in Janesville on Sunday, recorded 16 points in 12 games against the Bandits, while Cook had 15 points in 12 games.  St. Louis was led by Joe Birmingham’s 17 points in 12 games against Springfield and Joe Kalisz’s 16 points in 12 games.  Tyler Green, who played in all three wins over the Chill, is likely to start between the pipes for the Bandits, while Gabe Antoni will probably start for Springfield after stopping 91 of 95 shots in the Janesville series.

North Division Finals
#2 Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings vs. #1 Port Huron Fighting Falcons
(Port Huron 2011-12 record vs. Kalamazoo: 8-4-0)
(Kalamazoo 2011-12 record vs. Port Huron: 4-6-2)
Breakdown:   Port Huron enjoys the #1 seed thanks to a win on the final day of the regular season in Kalamazoo as the Fighting Falcons won the North Division by a single point over the K-Wings.  It is that one point and win that gives Port Huron home ice in the North Division Finals.  Both teams won their respective Division Semi-Finals in four games and will be well rested for this series.  Kalamazoo, who won the Robertson Cup back in 1991 and again in 1993, is trying to win their first cup in almost 20 years since their return to the league this season.  Port Huron, who won just six regular season games a season ago, are in the midst of one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in league history.  Both coaches, Marc Fakler (Kalamazoo) and Bill Warren (Port Huron) are legitimate coach of the year candidates.  Port Huron has dominated play of late, winning seven of the last eight games against the K-Wings.  Port Huron’s scoring during the season against the K-Wings is balanced with players like Alex Globke, Brett D’Andrea and Ian Miller all part of the contribution.  Warren does have a decision to make in goal whether to start Max Milosek or Peter Megariotis in goal as both have played in the 2012 playoffs thus far.  Kalamazoo is loaded with plenty of firepower with players like Andrew Graves and Robbie Payne.  The K-Wings also have been goaltender by committee with Alex Okicki and Ken MacLean, although it was Okicki who played in the series clincher against Traverse City, making 37 saves in their 3-2 win.

South Division Finals
#2 Topeka RoadRunners vs. #1 Amarillo Bulls
(Amarillo 2011-12 record vs. Topeka: 5-1-2)
(Topeka 2011-12 record vs. Amarillo: 3-5-0)
Breakdown: This South Finals series is a rematch of last year’s South Finals when Amarillo defeated Topeka in five games.  Last season, Topeka hosted the Robertson Cup, so despite the Game 5 loss, they got into the tournament along with Amarillo.  However, this season with Texas hosting the tournament there is just the one lone bid to the Robertson Cup at stake for both teams this season.  In the eight games played against one another during the regular season, the Bulls lost just once in regulation to the RoadRunners, sporting a 5-1-2 record.  Surprisingly, these two teams haven’t seen one another in three months.  The last time they did meet in a series, Topeka came away with two shootout wins in Amarillo, which should provide the RoadRunners with confidence knowing they can win on the road against the Bulls.  Jake Lynes almost single-handedly led Topeka past Texas in the Semi-Final round, while Amarillo dispatched of a determined Odessa team in four games.  What may be the key in this series is the teams getting off to a good start in Game 1.  Amarillo have had a 10-day layoff, while Topeka will have had an eight day layoff, so anytime to shake off any rust may cost the team the series.  In addition to Lynes, who has been red hot, Ben Bahe and Ryan White have put up the best numbers against the Bulls this season.  Topeka will go as far as goaltender Peter Traber will take them because if he is playing well, the RoadRunners have a good chance to move on.  Amarillo meanwhile will ride the hot stick of John Gustafsson and the experience of players like Brooks Behling and Matt Johnson.  However, the biggest ‘x’ factor may be in goal, where it has been goaltending by committee all season and playoff long with Greg Gruehl and Mike Taffe.  Topeka is more if a defensive-minded team, but the Bulls goaltenders will have to make the key stops at key times in order for Amarillo to move onto the Robertson Cup.

West Division Finals
#2 Wenatchee Wild vs. #1 Fairbanks Ice Dogs
(Fairbanks 2011-12 record vs. Wenatchee: 5-3-0)
(Wenatchee 2011-12 record vs. Fairbanks: 3-4-1)
Breakdown: Like the South Division Finals, the Finals in the West Division are a repeat of last season in which Fairbanks defeated Wenatchee in four games and advanced to the Robertson Cup, which they ultimately won for the first time in the team’s history.  The Wild are coming off a grueling five-game series with Alaska, in which they had to win the final two games on the road in Palmer, after going down in the series 2-1.  Fairbanks swept the Kenai River Brown Bears in three games and now have an eight-game NAHL playoff winning streak that dates back to their last loss on April 17, 2011 against the Wenatchee Wild in Game 3 of the West Finals last season.  The Wild have had their problems scoring on the Ice Dogs this season, registering just 14 goals in the eight regular season games.  Ben Carey, Max McHugh and Shawn Pauly have put up the most productive numbers against Fairbanks this season, but the biggest decision for coach John Becanic will be who to start in goal, Greg Lewis or Rob Nichols?  Lewis played in both Games 4 and 5 in Alaska, helping Wenatchee win the series, but Nichols set all-time NAHL records for goals against average and shutouts in a season during the regular season.  Fairbanks will likely go with Alex Fons to start in goal, who posted two shutouts in his two starts against Kenai River in the opening round.  The usual suspects of Gabe Levin, JT Osborn and Sean O’Rourke had success against Wenatchee in the regular season, but look for Garret Clemment to make an offensive impact as well.  Like last year’s series, the first three games will be played in Fairbanks.  If Wenatchee can win at least one of those three games, they are assured of finishing the series in Wenatchee with a trip to the Robertson Cup on the line.  With the playoff history between the two teams running deep and emotional the last three seasons, this year’s edition should be one that is fun and exciting to watch with the winner being one of the favorites heading into the Robertson Cup.

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