NAHL Mid-Season Report: Central and South Divisions
Austin Bruins (1st place, 21-5-4, 46 pts.) – The Bruins have been one of the many success stories in the first half in the NAHL. They currently have the largest lead of any division leader in the league at 12 points and they have lost just five games in regulation. It is thanks in large part to returning core of players that has produced and met expectations for head coach Chris Tok. The Bruins also know how to win at home, as they are 10-1-1 there this season. Austin is led by NAHL leading scorer Brandon Wahlin, who at the halfway point of the season leads the NAHL in points with 43 and is tied for the assist lead with 30. Success for the Bruins begins with the power play as they score almost a quarter of the time they go on the man-advantage, which leads the NAHL. A total of 12 players, including Wahlin, are in double digit scoring, which also includes three defensemen. Defenseman Cody Dixon leads the NAHL in defensive scoring with 25 points to date. The Bruins are also solid in goal with veteran Nick Lehr and rookie Jason Pawloski. The Bruins schedule in the second half sets up well for the Bruins who have a whopping 18 games at home the remainder of the season.
Bismarck Bobcats (2nd place, 16-12-2, 34 pts.) – The Bobcats, who are the reigning Central Division regular season and playoff champions, have recovered nicely from their 3-5-0 start and are now putting themselves in position for another trademark stretch run. Bismarck has been bolstered by the return of goaltender Aaron Nelson, who has won 10 of his 16 games and ranks 3rd in the NAHL with a 93.6% save percentage. Adam Knochenmus (33 points) and Patrick Moore (32 points) both rank in the Top 12 in league scoring. Shane Omdahl is second in goals with 12 and leads in the team in game-winning goals. The Bobcats face the Bruins six more times and seven of their next eight games after the holiday break are at home. The Bobcats are also on a hot streak, having lost just three games in the regulation of their last 13 games. However, because of the proximity of both Brookings and Minot right behind the Bobcats, Bismarck will have to be on their toes and be sure to play well in the head to head match-ups that are coming up. The Bobcats, who have always been strong at home down the stretch have 17 of their 30 remaining game at home.
Brookings Blizzard (3rd place tie, 15-11-2, 32 pts.) – The Blizzard, who were in 1st place for much of the first half of the season until mid-November, have struggled as of late. After opening the season with a 13-4-0 record, the Blizzard have won just two of their last 11 games heading into the holiday break. Goaltender Drew Weigman, who was the NAHL goalie of the month back in September, has played well of late, suffering just one regulation loss in his last five starts. Evan Hesse has been very effective since joining the Blizzard after beginning the season in Johnstown. Veteran forward and captain Thomas Williams leads the team in scoring with 30 points and his 18 goals ranks 4th in the NAHL. Head Coach Cory Laylin is still trying to find the right line-up with a couple recent additions to the team, but the Blizzard are going to have to find a way to succeed against those teams above them in the standings as they are a combined 2-7-1 so far this season against Austin and Bismarck. If the Blizzard are going to be successful in the second half, the majority of it will have to be on the road as 18 of their remaining 32 games are away from home.
Minot Minotauros (3rd place tie, 15-13-2, 32 pts.) – Based upon what happened last season, the Minot Minotauros are one of the feel good and success stories so far this season as they currently sit in a tie for 3rd place in the Central Division. What makes it all the more impressive is that Minot got off to a tough start, going 1-8-1 in their first 10 games. Head Coach Marty Murray, who could be an early coach of the year candidate, found the right mix in late October, which also coincided with the insertion of Tyler Parks in goal. Parks has been the backbone of the Minotauors surge in November and December as Minot has suffered just a single regulation loss in the last 12 games. Minot also has a dangerous and talented group of forwards led by Jadin Martin and Jake O’Borksy. Tim Donohue has been on a tear of late and 16-year-old Mason Morelli is one of the best young forwards in the league. Minot has one of the league’s best power plays and also plays with some toughness and grit, something that could bode well for playoff success. The other common remark from the league’s coaches is that Minot is a very hard-working team, something that stems from the lessons learned a season ago. The Minotauros will have every chance to move themselves into prime playoff position with 15 home games in the second half, but the key stretch may be the final seven games, which are against Austin, Bismarck and Brookings.
Coulee Region Chill (5th place, 8-16-5, 21 pts.) – The Chill are still trying to find their identity under first year head coach John Hamre. Despite having just eight wins at the midway point and couple players have stood out. Mac Jansen has performed admirably and is on the cusp of matching last year’s point total. His 28 points leads the team by a wide margin. Goaltender Blake Cates took over the starting job in early November and has won six if the Chill’s eight games, while keeping his save percentage right around 92%. The Chill’s start to the season could have been better as they won just two of their first 15 games, but that included four losses via overtime or shootout. The Chill are disciplined, but their special teams has to get better in the second half of the season as their power play and penalty rank in the bottom four in the NAHL. Defensemen Sean Lang and Derek Smith are nice 1-2 punch on the blueline, but the Chill will need to get more scoring, mainly from their other talents scorers like Eddie Matsushima, Garrett Hendrickson and Cory Lushanko. The Chill also have a difficult schedule for the second half with the majority games on the road and trips to every divisional opponent.
Aberdeen Wings (6th place, 8-19-2, 18 pts.) – It has been a bumpy road for the Wings in the first half of the season. The Wings have been plagued by long stretches of inconsistency and a team that is young and still learning. They started the season winning their first two games, but then lost the next six. They also entered the break on a seven-game skid. Of the eight wins, only half have come in back-to-back games. In mid-December, the Wings replaced head coach Pete Sauer with assistant coach Garrett Strot. The Wings have found two legitimate goal scorers in Justin Parizek and Peter Krieger, who have accounted for the majority of offense with 27 and 26 points respectively. One of the things that needs to get better for Aberdeen is the special teams. The Wings are last in penalty killing percentage and second to last in power play percentage. The Wings also have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, allowing the second most goals per game in the league this season. Now in his third season, goaltender Marcus Zelzer has faced a lot of shots this season, but the numbers have not been what they were the last two seasons. With half the season to go, the Wings goal should try and be to track down the fourth and final playoff spot, but wins are going to have to come early and often in the second half.
Amarillo Bulls (1st place, 23-3-3, 49 pts.) – The Bulls are right back to where they were last season, at the top of the South Division standings. The Bulls start the second half of the season having won 13 of their last 14 games and have lost just three games in regulation. When looking at the Bulls line-up, it is tough to find a weakness. They are a combination of scoring and defense as they lead the league in both most goals scored per game and fewest goals allowed per game. It is no secret that the Bulls are propelled by veteran leadership. Their top seven scorers are all NAHL veterans who played with the Bulls or in the NAHL last season. Defenseman John Rey, who was the NAHL Defenseman of the Year last season, is 2nd in defensive scoring this season in the NAHL and the Bulls feature a total of eight players with 20 or more points. Niagara recruit TJ Sarcona leads the way with 34 points and veteran Mike Davis leads the team with 15 goals. Maybe the most impressive and remarkable stat for the Bulls and a big hidden reason behind their success, is that a total of six defensemen are all in double digit scoring this season. What has also been impressive is that the Bulls have done it with some injury problems. Without much pomp and circumstance, the Bulls also have the league’s top goalie in Paul Berrafato, who leads the NAHL with a 1.78 goals against average and is second in wins. When it all is said and done the Bulls will face plenty of pressure from the Texas Tornado and Topeka RoadRunners for the South crown, but if they remain healthy and keep getting balanced production, they will be hard to catch.
Texas Tornado (2nd place, 22-10-1, 45 pts.) – The defending Robertson Cup National Champions haven’t missed a beat despite the fact they have one of the youngest teams in the league this season. One of biggest surprises and success stories so far in the league this season has been rookie forward Brandon Hawkins. The 18-year-old has flourished under Tony Curtale’s system and leads the NAHL in goals through the midway point of the season with 25 goals in his first 33 games. Veteran Jackson Leef is one of the league leaders in assists and rookie Scott Conway has emerged as one of the best young talents in the league. Veteran forward Justin Greenberg, who scored the game-winning goal in the National Championship game is second on the team in goals. Like Amarillo, the Tornado get good contribution from their defensive corps which includes Nick Neville, Michael Hoy and rookie Anthony Mousseau. The Tornado have done traditionally very well against the likes of Corpus Christi, Wichita Falls and Odessa this season with a combined 15-3-1 record against the three this season, but where they are falling short is their 2-7 record against Amarillo and Topeka. Perhaps the biggest X factor will be the goaltending down the stretch. Starter Hunter Leisner leads the league in wins, but is outside the Top 15 in goals against average and save percentage. The Tornado have played the most games of anyone to date in the NAHL after a jam-packed November so their second half will be a little lighter.
Topeka RoadRunners (3rd place, 19-7-5, 43 pts.) – The RoadRunners got off to one of their traditional fast starts, going 8-1-1 in their first 10 games and after their first 17 they were 13-2-2. November hit and Topeka stumbled a bit as they had trouble with games against Amarillo and Springfield. But, make no mistake, Topeka has a very talented team with many offensive and defensive weapons. The RoadRunners have one of the best 1-2 forward tandems in the league with UCONN recruit Sean Gaffney and Kyle Sharkey. Gaffney is second in league scoring with 42 points and Sharkey, who was the NAHL Forward of the Month for November, is right behind with 38 points. Ferris State recruit Tyler Andrew has been an impressive in his first season in the league and defenseman Michal Pastor is one of the league’s highest scoring defensemen. The RoadRunners have one of the league’s best road records, but surprisingly have stuggled a little at home. Like Kalamazoo, Topeka has benefitted from two players that played for the St. Louis Bandits last season in captain forward Drew Kariofiles and goaltender Spencer Viele. Viele has played exceptionally well and ranks 2nd in the NAHL in goals against average at 1.80 and 3rd in save percentage at 93.5%. Topeka should also get a lift from recent addition Brandon Brossoit. The RoadRunners have just 12 home games remaining in their second half of the season.
Corpus Christi IceRays (4th place, 13-12-5, 31 pts.) – The IceRays have had a steady first half of the season, however, their home and away records couldn’t be more against the traditional trend. The IceRays have been phenomenal on the road, but five game below .500 at home. Perry D’Arrisso and Rudy Sulmonte have emerged as the primary point producers and Emil Romig is also averaging a point per game. The defenseman have been good, but the IceRays are lacking production from the point. Out of their 96 total goals this season, only seven have come off the stick of defensemen. Corpus Christi also was plagued by a slow start as they went just 2-5-3 in their first 10 games. The IceRays also struggled to find a #1 goaltender in the first two months of the season until late October when Hayden Stewart stepped in and played well. Corpus Christi’s season really turned around in their trip to Alaska when they won three of four games. The IceRays like to play an in-your-face, gritty style as they lead the league in penalty minutes this season, but they also rank second in short-handed goals. It will be tough for the IceRays to catch the Bulls, Tornado or RoadRunners down the stretch, but they certainly have a good chance to capture the fourth and final playoff spot. The good news is, they have played some of their best hockey of the season against the likes of the 1st place Bulls, whom they have beaten twice this season. The IceRays will have to improve their home record in the second half with 14 home games and face plenty of tough challenges with remaining roadtrips to all five opponents in the South.
Wichita Falls Wildcats (5th place, 10-17-2, 22 pts.) – The Wildcats also got off to a slow start, winning just three of their first 11 games. They also went into the break losing four of their final five games, but the Wildcats haven’t played a game since December 9th and will have the busiest second half of any of the South Division teams. The Wildcats have had their challenges on special teams this season, as they rank in the bottom four in both power play and penalty kill. In order to get into the top four in the South, the Wildcats are going to have to find a way to beat Amarillo and Topeka on consistent basis. The Wildcats do have two wins against the Tornado this season, but wins against the others would go a long way in their playoff chances. Of their eight wins, forward and co-leading scorer Eliot Grauer has half of the game-winning goals. Kyle Bauman is also tied for the team lead in points with 20. Conor O’Neil has been a nice addition from Amarillo as he has nine points in his 13 games with the Wildcats. The top eight scorers for the Wildcats are all forwards, so output from the defensemen in the second half of the season will be something they are looking for. Both goalies, Evan Cowley and Cooper Cook have looked good in stretches this season, but are going to have to really shine in the second half. The Wildcats have the benefit of 18 home games in the second half.
Odessa Jackalopes (6th place, 5-23-2, 12 pts.) – The Jackalopes have had a rough first half of the season with just five wins in the first 30 games. On a bright note, the Jacks started the season with a lot of optimism, jumping out to a respectable 3-3-1 start. However, since then the Jacks have won just twice in the last 23 games. The Jackalopes have proven they can beat some of the best teams in the league, with wins over Texas, Topeka, Minot and others this season. Lawrence Cornellier is a true star in the league and the overwhelming choice for team MVP. His 29 points to date is 17 more than the next closest teammate. Five different goalies have played in a game this season, but the Jacks appeared to have found their starter for the remainder of the season in Nick Deery, who was traded to Odessa from Brookings. It is a long shot that the Jackalopes will be able to put themselves in position to make the playoffs, but stranger things have happened. A couple things will have to improve. First, the Jacks will have to find a way to produce more offense. They rank last in the NAHL in goals scored per game and shots on goal per game. Second, they will have to find a way to limit the opposition’s chances as they allow the most goals per game and give up the most shots per game in the league. Also, with one win at home the Jackalopes will have to take advantage of the schedule, which is very favorable and loaded with home games come late January.