The NAHL is now one step away from determining teams for the 2013 Robertson Cup National Championship Tournament with the beginning of the four Divisional Finals this weekend. Eight teams remain, but only four will advance for the right to play for a National Championship. Each Divisional Semi-Final is a best of five series, with the four winners advancing to play for the Robertson Cup. Here is a look at how each Division Final series shapes up:
#1 Amarillo Bulls vs. #3 Texas Tornado (Amarillo won season series, 10-2)
The Division Finals get started on Thursday in the South as Amarillo and Texas get things started. Both teams have had plenty of rest as the Bulls haven’t played a game in 15 days, while the Tornado haven’t played a game in 13 days. That gave both teams a chance to get some rest, heal some injuries and work on fine tuning their games for what is sure to be a rough and tumble series. The last time the two teams met in the playoffs was in 2011 when Amarillo beat Texas 3 games to 1 in the South Semi-Finals. The season series was dominated by the Bulls, especially early in the season. The Bulls also swept the Tornado the last regular season weekend in Frisco. However, the Tornado are playing some of their best hockey after their sweep of Topeka in the Semi-Finals and have enough players on the roster from last season’s Robertson Cup Championship team to give them an experience edge.
Why Amarillo could win: The Bulls could win because they know how to beat the Tornado. In the last three years, the Bulls are 20-8 against Texas during the regular season and have the playoff series win against them back in 2011. Their best players continue to be the ones who step up in the playoffs and the Bulls have perhaps the most depth in the league. They remain a big offensive threat thanks in large part to the contributions from their defensemen.
Why Texas could win: If Texas plays like they did in the Topeka series they have a great chance to win the series against the Bulls. Like Amarillo, Texas has many offensive weapons and talent, but it is how they play defensively that will ultimately determine if they move on to defend their title. Goaltender Hunter Leisner allowed just a goal in each of the three games against the RoadRunners and if he plays the same way against the Bulls, the Tornado could come away with the series win.
Game 1 - TEX@AMA, Apr 25, 7:05pm
Game 2 - TEX@AMA, Apr 26, 7:05pm
Game 3 - AMA@TEX, Apr 30, 7:00pm
Game 4 - AMA@TEX, May 01, 7:00pm*
Game 5 - TEX@AMA, May 03, 7:05pm*
#1 Austin Bruins vs. #2 Bismarck Bobcats (Season series tied, 5-5)
It may tough to find a more competitive and even series than Austin and Bismarck in the Central Finals. It is also a rematch of last year’s Central Finals, when the seedings were reversed and Bismarck came away with a 3 games to 1 series win. Each team won five games against one another during the regular season, and several of those wins came on each other’s home ice. Four of the ten games were decided in overtime or a shootout and in the 10 games Bismarck had 39 goals, while the Bruins had 37. Bismarck blitzed the Brookings Blizzard in their Semi-Final series, scoring 20 goals in a three-game sweep. Meanwhile, the Bruins won their series with Minot with defense, as they allowed just five goals in the four games. The last time the two teams faced one another this season was back on March 22-23 in Austin when the Bobcats picked up a weekend road sweep of the Bruins.
Why Austin could win: Statistically, goaltender Nick Lehr is the #1 goalie in the playoffs right now. He also has the benefit of being on the team last year and having the experience of having seen what the playoffs are all about. History would say the Bruins defense is going to have to stop the Bobcats offense, but during stretches this year, the Bruins were the #1 offensive team in the NAHL, so they do have that capability.
Why Bismarck could win: The Bobcats have the history edge and the experience edge. They have represented their division at the Robertson Cup the last four years, winning the title in 2010. The Bobcats are playing some of, if not the best hockey of anyone in the league right now and haven’t lost a game in regulation since March 1st, a stretch of 13 straight games. They can score and they have veteran Aaron Nelson in goal, a winning combination.
Game 1 - BIS@AUS, Apr 26, 7:05pm
Game 2 - BIS@AUS, Apr 27, 7:05pm
Game 3 - AUS@BIS, May 03, 7:15pm
Game 4 - AUS@BIS, May 04, 7:15pm*
Game 5 - BIS@AUS, May 06, 7:05pm*
#1 Soo Eagles vs. #2 Jamestown Ironmen (Soo won season series, 6-2)
All signs point to this being a goaltending battle as two veteran goaltenders are thrust to the forefront in this series. Soo’s Tyler Marble and Jamestown’s Joe Ballmer are about as good as it gets when it comes to goaltending talent in the NAHL. However, the Eagles dominated much of the season series, outscoring the Ironmen 34-18 in the season series and winning 6 of the 8 match-ups. Both teams benefitted greatly from having a bye through the North Division play-in series and making quick work of their Semi-Final series. The Eagles swept the Port Huron Fighting Falcons, allowing just four goals in the process, while the Ironmen swept the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings, allowing just three goals in the series. If this series comes down to a fifth and deciding game, the x-factor could be the travel for Jamestown and home ice advantage for the Soo. Other than that, the series sets up very evenly. Both team’s penalty kills are #1 in the playoffs and have yet to yield a goal, so it could be the team that wins the power play battle that could ultimately win this series.
Why Soo could win: Although Tyler Marble is the backbone of the team, the reason the Eagles are so dangerous is because of the offensive talent in the line-up. They have the league’s scoring champion in Jared VanWormer and a host of other players that know how to put the puck in the net. They are also a veteran team with plenty of players with playoff experience, something that is always an edge come playoff time.
Why Jamestown could win: Goaltender Joe Ballmer will have to be even better than Marble in this series, but make no mistake, the Ironmen are going with the underdog tag. The moves the Ironmen made in the middle of the season acquiring players like Nico Sierra and Ryan Doucet were done for this exact moment in time. The Ironmen also have 11 players who age out after this season and a veteran team is a dangerous one at this time of year.
Game 1 - JAM@SOO, Apr 26, 7:30pm
Game 2 - JAM@SOO, Apr 27, 7:30pm
Game 3 - SOO@JAM, May 02, 7:00pm
Game 4 - SOO@JAM, May 03, 7:00pm*
Game 5 - JAM@SOO, May 06, 7:30pm*
#1 Wenatchee Wild vs. #2 Fairbanks Ice Dogs (Fairbanks won season series, 7-5)
As the old saying goes… it doesn’t matter how you get there, just get there. That can be said about both Semi-Final series for Wenatchee and Fairbanks, as both were pushed to the five game limits in their respective series only to both win their fifth and deciding games at home last weekend. There is no playoff series that has the familiarity and rivalry as these two have established the last four years. Now make that five with this year’s West Finals. The past two seasons, the Ice Dogs have had the edge and defeated Wenatchee for the West title. In 2011, they went on to win their first Robertson Cup and last year, they lost in the National Semi-Final in overtime against the eventual champion Tornado. In 2009 and 2010, it was the Wild who claimed the West playoff titles over Fairbanks. The series during the regular season was also close with the Ice Dogs holding a 7-5 edge. Seven of the 12 games were decided by a goal and three went to shootout. If there is an edge for the Ice Dogs in this series, it may be that the Wild have won just once in Fairbanks in six tries this season. If there is an edge for Wenatchee, it has to be the experience factor, with nine players aging out after this season vs. Fairbanks five.
Why Wenatchee could win: If the Wild play well in the first two games at home and get contributions from their top players like they did in Game 4 and 5 of their series with Fresno, they could seize the early momentum and go up to Fairbanks to close out the series. Veteran forward Jacob Barber is tied for the playoff goal scoring lead with five. Goaltender Robbie Nichols probably won’t see a slew of shots in the series, but he is going to have to come up big at some point to give the Wild an edge.
Why Fairbanks could win: The Ice Dogs have recent history on their side and they typically save their best and most dramatic hockey of the season for this time of year. With their great record against Wenatchee in Fairbanks, it will be all the more important for the Ice Dogs to win in Wenatchee during the first two games. Like Nichols, Fairbanks goaltender Steve Perry was here last year and has the necessary experience to lead his team to a series win.
Game 1 - FAI@WEN, Apr 26, 7:05pm
Game 2 - FAI@WEN, Apr 27, 7:05pm
Game 3 - WEN@FAI, May 03, 7:30pm
Game 4 - WEN@FAI, May 04, 7:30pm*
Game 5 - FAI@WEN, May 07, 6:35pm*