The St. Cloud Norsemen come in to the weekend hot with an 8-1-0-1 record in their last ten games, but they’ve got a big test on their hands facing the Austin Bruins, the team sitting atop the NAHL Central Division standings. Only two teams in the NAHL, Johnstown at 9-1 and Oklahoma, who has won their last 15 games, have a better record than St. Cloud in their last 10 contests. The Norsemen began this ten-game stretch with a home-and-home sweep of the Bruins back on January 20th and 21st and are looking for similar results this weekend.
Austin has a record of 27-11-3-4 and their 61 points are 11 clear of anyone else in the division while their +38 goal differential is 26 better than anyone else in the Central. The Norsemen may be catching the Bruins at the right time, however. Austin has split their last four weekends and coupled with the sweep at the hands of St. Cloud before that, they’re just 4-6-0 in their last ten.
St. Cloud Assistant Coach Brock Kautz knows that it doesn’t matter when you play Austin though, they’re going to be a formidable opponent. “There’s a reason why they’re the top of our division and have been pretty much the whole year,” points out Kautz. “They just do such a great job at every facet of the game; they get good goaltending, they have really good defensemen and they have four lines that can get up and down the ice and can make you pay when you’re not playing the right way. It’s a team that you really gotta be disciplined and detailed in your game if you want to have success against them.”
Austin is paced by Gavin Morrissey whose 44 points are tied for 12th in the league while Austin Salani’s 43 are tied for 16th and Walter Zacher, whose brother Lawton Zacher was the goalie the Norsemen just saw with the Minotauros last weekend, also is north of 40 with 41 points. Defensemen James Goffredo (32 points, tied 6th) and Jack Malinski (31 points, tied 8th) are both top-ten in points from the blue line while Goffredo also is 8th amongst all rookies in scoring.
Kautz knows that with a team that’s as loaded offensively as Austin, whose 3.29 goals per game ranks 10th of the 29 NAHL teams, mistakes need to be kept to a minimum. “You have to manage pucks and you have to be willing to block shots; I think that’s the biggest thing when you’re facing guys that are capable of putting points on the board,” Kautz reasons. “You gotta understand who you’re out against and make sure that you’re not trying to complicate the game. Sometimes you just gotta live to fight another day and get the puck in the neutral zone and make sure those guys don’t hurt us.”
On the other side of the rink, Kade Peterson leads St. Cloud in goals (18), points (38) and alongside Duke Kiffin,is one of two Norsemen who has played in all 44 games (though Jack Wandmacher has played in 45 NAHL games this season,as he had the opportunity to play in one more before coming over from the Corpus Christi IceRays). Blake Perbix is second in points with 36 while defenseman Broten Sabo’s 25 assists are the most on the team and his 32 points are tied with Goffredo for 6th from the blueline. Andrew Clarke nips Goffredo with 33 points, tied for 6th amongst rookies.
Between the pipes Austin has a tandem of Ethan Robertson (13-5-2-3) and Trent Wiemken (13-4-1-1) who have almost identical stats: they come in 7th and 8th in the league each with a 2.15 goals against average and both have a .915% save percentage, which is 19th and 20th amongst qualified goalies. They each are tied for 15th with 13 wins and tied for 4th with three shutouts.
Kautz talks about the gaudy statistics the Austin goalie duo has and how their skaters in front of them help their numbers. “Goalie stats are for sure team stats, in my opinion. The guys in front of them do a lot to try to eliminate as many chances as they can but when they do give up chances, both of their goalies are really good and find ways to make saves,” compliments Kautz. “They both move well, they’re quick, and they eliminate second chance opportunities. We gotta make sure they don’t get comfortable, try to get traffic in front of them and we’ll see what happens.”
The Norsemen will counter with Ethan Dahlmeir, whose goals against average of 2.16 ranks 9th in the league, and save percentage of .925% is fourth amongst qualified goalies, while Tomáš Boľo checks in with a 3.09 gaa and .887%.
St. Cloud is just a lone point behind the Aberdeen Wings for second in the Central Division and with Aberdeen having Friday night off, a win in regulation or extra time would give the Norsemen sole possession of second Friday night. The Wings can take that lead back with a couple wins on the weekend as they host games Saturday and Sunday but with some help from the North Iowa Bulls, St. Cloud is not only looking to get into second place but remain there at the conclusion of the weekend.
St. Cloud’s home game on Friday drops the puck at 7:00 and tickets are still available online at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com. The home-and-home concludes on Saturday in Austin at 7:15 and you can watch that online at hockeytv.com.