With the 2008-09 regular season in the books, the road to the Mason City, Iowa - the site of this year’s Robertson Cup Championship - begins this week as 15 of the NAHL’s 16 playoff-bound teams vie for the final four berths to the tournament.
The winners of each best-of-five divisional semifinals series will clash in the best-of-five divisional finals, with those four winners, along with the host North Iowa Outlaws, converging on Mason City from April 28-May 3 to play for the Robertson Cup, which represents the NAHL’s playoff champion and USA Hockey’s Tier II Junior A national champion.
In the Central Division, the top-seeded Bismarck Bobcats will take on the Alexandria Blizzard in the first round, with the Bobcats holding an 11-2-1 edge in the regular season.
Nine of those games, however, were decided by one goal.
“It should be a close series,” said Blizzard head coach Brad Willner. “They have great goaltending and are very hard to score on. We’re going to have to limit our mistakes and capitalize when we have opportunities. It should be a lot of fun.”
Bobcats head coach Byron Pool agreed, taking nothing for granted despite his team’s 10-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
“Alexandria is a great team and will be a very tough first-round opponent,” said the coach. “We’re definitely going to have our hands full and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes the full five games.”
In the other divisional semis, the No. 2-seeded North Iowa Outlaws, who are already guaranteed a berth to the Robertson Cup Championship Tournament as hosts, will take on the Owatonna Express.
The Outlaws, who went 7-3-3 against the Express this season, are hoping that hosting the series’ first two games at the North Iowa Ice Arena will make a difference.
“It's going to be very exciting to start out at our home rink, which I feel is the most intimidating place to play in the NAHL,” said Outlaws head coach Jeff Crouse. “The noise and the atmosphere is definitely a huge advantage for our team.”
“We’ve been preparing for the playoffs for the last few months now and feel that we’re all set to go. I think we can definitely make some noise not only in the Central Division, but also at the Robertson Cup.”
“I'm sure that both teams will play with a lot of energy,” said Express head coach Pat Cullen. “Neither team wants to go out in Round 1.”
With five straight wins to close the season, the top seed in the North Division, the U.S. National Team, will take on the Alpena IceDiggers in the first round.
Team USA finished 9-0-1 against the IceDiggers in the regular season, including a 5-3 win in the season finale on Sunday.
“It's a great accomplishment and honor to be able to play in the playoffs,” said Under-17 Team head coach John Hynes. “We're looking forward to a competitive series with Alpena.”
“USA is dangerous offensively and we’ll have to be disciplined on defense and stay out of the box if we want to be in the third period with a chance to win the games,” said IceDiggers head coach Jack Fritsche. “It’s going to be a series of mistakes and whoever capitalizes will win.”
The other North semis series promises to be tightly contested, as the No. 2-seeded Mahoning Valley Phantoms square off against the Traverse City North Stars.
The two clubs were separated by just two points in the regular-season standings, with each team taking 15 points from each other in their 13 contests.
“It doesn't get any tighter than that,” said Phantoms head coach Bob Mainhardt. “It's definitely going to be a great series.”
Happy with their first playoff appearance in three years, the North Stars have plenty more to prove and know they have their work cut out for them against the Phantoms.
“We’re not just satisfied with that accomplishment,” said Traverse City head coach Anthony Palumbo. “Our goal, along with every team that qualifies for the playoffs, is to win the Robertson Cup.
“But it won’t be easy and we understand that. We play one of the best teams in the league in their building to start, and we’ll have to be ready to play our best hockey.”
Mainhardt, for one, has been impressed with the competitiveness of his team’s division all season.
“We knew all along that the North Division would be the toughest to win in the league,” he said. “Now that the regular-season race is done, we know whoever is left when the dust settles at the end of April in our division will have a great shot at the Robertson Cup.”
Fresh off of a three-point weekend over Topeka in which they skated to their second straight regular-season championship, the two-time defending Robertson Cup champion St. Louis Bandits host the Springfield Jr. Blues in their divisional semifinals series.
St. Louis held an 11-1 edge in the regular season over Springfield, but the Jr. Blues are 8-2 in their last 10 games, including a two-game sweep over the Wichita Falls Wildcats to close the season.
“It should be a fun, hard-fought, exciting series,” said Jr. Blues head coach Andy Maher. “I think both teams are a little different than when we played each other earlier in the year, and we’re looking forward to getting started.”
“Springfield is a team that we have a lot of respect for,” said Bandits head coach Jeff Brown. “They have a solid club that’s playing good hockey right now. It should be a great series.
“We’ve been playing pretty good hockey lately, but we still need some players to elevate their games coming into the playoffs.”
Topeka and Wichita Falls will tangle in the other South Division semis, with the RoadRunners, who finished with the NAHL’s second-best regular-season mark, fashioning 5-1-2 against the Wildcats.
“We’ve had an excellent year, but this is a new season,” said RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer. “Wichita Falls has played us very tough and we’ll need to be playing our best hockey every night.”
The Wildcats are 5-5 in their last 10 games, losing two games to the Jr. Blues last weekend in the season’s final weekend.
“We didn't finish the way we would’ve liked, but anything can happen in the playoffs,” said Wichita Falls head coach John Bowkus.
The West Division champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the No. 4-seeded Kenai River Brown Bears will dance in one of the divisional semifinals.
With a 12-0-3 mark over the Brown Bears this season, the Ice Dogs couldn’t be happier beginning the series at home, where they are a league-best 23-2-4.
“We’re opening at the Big Dipper, where we’ve played very well,” said Ice Dogs head coach Josh Hauge. “Obviously, anything can happen in the playoffs, but we like the team we have. Kenai is a very offensive-minded, strong-skating team and we’re going to have to be ready for that.”
For Kenai River, it knows it has its hands full against one of the top teams in the league, but isn’t discounting its chances heading into the series.
“They’re an excellent club, so the task won’t be a simple one for us,” said Brown Bears head coach Brent Agrusa. “But the playoffs mark a new season; everyone begins 0-0 and I reiterated that to our club this week.
“We’ve had close games with Fairbanks all season. Hopefully, we’ll work hard enough to make the puck bounce our way.”
The second-place Wenatchee Wild will host the Alaska Avalanche in the other West semis. The Wild held a 10-3-1 mark over Alaska this season, and both teams know each other well having matched up in the last four games of the regular season.
The Wild will rely heavily on its strong fan support at it readies to host its first-ever playoff series.
“There’s a lot of energy and excitement here,” said Wild associate head coach Ryan McKelvie. “Our team has made significant strides throughout the regular season and I feel that we’re prepared for success in the playoffs.
“We've had some very good games against the Avalanche and this series should be very entertaining.”
Alaska head coach Dave Boitz is also looking forward to a spirited series.
“We’ve had some great games down the stretch with Wenatchee and our guys are looking forward to a high-flying, exciting playoff series with them,” he said.