Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: the Norsemen are going into a vital series this weekend. Yes, that sentiment has been brought up time and time again as of late, but for good reason: just five points separate second place from sixth place in the NAHL Central Division. Barring an epic collapse, Austin will almost assuredly be in the 2023 Robertson Cup playoffs and with a Bruins sweep and some help from St. Coud and North Iowa, Austin could clinch a postseason berth as early as this Saturday with five weekends still left in the regular season. That means realistically there are five teams fighting for three seats in the postseason game of musical chairs, and the Norsemen can really help their chances with a strong performance this weekend with Bismarck in town.
Despite being in last place in the NAHL Central Division, the Bobcats have a respectable record of 21-21-4-2 good for 48 points in 48 games and they also have the second best goal differential in the division behind Austin. Bismarck still finds themsleves in a vulnerable spot however, currently three points out of a playoff spot. St. Cloud could put the Bobcats in a world of hurt if they can prevent the visitors from getting any points before heading back to North Dakota.
St. Cloud Assistant Coach Brock Kautz admits that the Norsemen certainly have front of mind the thought of trying to be a thorn in the side of the Bobcats and trying to dig a hole that Bismarck may not be able to crawl out of. “Yeah, one hundred percent. Any time you play someone that might be below you in the standings, you want to create some separation,” Kautz admits. “Because when you play a team there’s two points available; maybe we get them, maybe they get them. When you go into future weekends you don’t want to rely on other teams. You don’t wanna say ‘Hopefully Austin gets two points here, hopefully Minot gets two points here.’ Any time you play a team, you wanna try to gain some separation and make sure you don’t give them any points and you take all of them.”
The series has been close to dead even; both teams have won five of the ten previous matchups with St. Cloud gaining 12 points with a 5-3-1-1 record while Bismarck picked up 11 points with a 5-4-1-0 record against the Norsemen. In the special teams department St. Cloud holds an edge converting 19.7% of their power play chances, good for 15th among the 29 teams while Bismarck ranks 18th scoring 17.9% of the time. On the penalty kill the Norsemen are 5th in the league with an 86.1% kill rate while the Bobcats have successfully killed off 76.6% of their shorthanded situations, ranking 25th.
Kautz admits that things have changed between the two teams over the course of the season from when the teams first met October 7th. “I think maybe things have changed just because of situations and what’s going on and the power play/special teams may have been tweaked a little bit. Obviously when you get this far into the season you kind of understand what guys need to play together and understand what to expect out of (Julian) Beaumont and (Vertti) Jantunen and some of their guys,” explains Kautz. “After we’ve played them ten times you kind of understand where they like to go with the puck, who is a worker on their team, who you really have to watch when they’re on the ice and manage pucks. You also maybe pick up some tendencies on the back end and their goalies as well. You just learn a lot from over the course of the year when you play somebody as many times as we do.”
Jantunen leads the Bobcats in points with 41 and is tied with Calvin Hanson for the team lead in goals with 19. Hanson is tied for second in points for Bismarck with Patrick Johnson at 37 and defenseman Michael Neumeier leads the team with 27 assists while his 35 points are tied alongside St. Cloud’s Broten Sabo for fourth amongst blueliners, although Neumeier has played in eight more contests than Sabo. Linards Lipskis leads Bismarck is goals against average at 2.63, save percentage with .911% and shutouts with two while appearing in 26 games posting a 10-11-3-1 record. Hunter Garvey has one more appearance than Lipskis on the season but that includes eight games with the El Paso Rhinos.
In other NAHL Central Division action the Austin Bruins are on the road taking on the Aberdeen Wings and the North Iowa Bulls are making the trek northwest to battle the Minot Minotauros.
The Norsemen host the Bismarck Bobcats for a pair of games this weekend on Friday and Saturday night. Friday night is Fleet Farm’s First Responders’ Night with proceeds from the tickets going towards the Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation. You can get tickets for all Norsemen games at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com.