The St. Cloud Norsemen will battle with the Austin Bruins in a best-of-five series for the NAHL Central Division Postseason Championship and a berth to the Robertson Cup in Blaine, MN. The series begins this weekend with games in Austin Friday and Saturday.
St. Cloud defeating Aberdeen in three straight games in Round 1 and not needing to host Game 4 last Saturday or travel to Aberdeen for Game 5 on Monday allowed them an opportunity to get a little more rest and avoid a little more wear and tear. That’s huge for a squad that’s already banged up. “I think there are some guys that are getting a little healthier, but we’re not really in a position, I don’t think, to have anybody really get healthy enough to come from the stands or out of the grave to play,” concedes St. Cloud Norsemen Head Coach Corey Millen It’s just the guys that have played that may be a little banged up/out of shape. Maybe they get a week’s worth of something under their belt where they can feel a little more comfortable. We are what we are and we gotta hope it’s enough.”
The Austin Bruins were second in the Central Division in goals scored in the regular season with 187 (3.12 goals per game) and have a ton of depth at scoring with eight different players reaching the 30-point mark. They’re led by forwards Gavin Morrissey (17-44-61 in 59 regular season games played), Walter Zacher (32-23-55 in 58 GP), Austin Salani (15-32-47 in 42 GP) and Dylan Cook (18-22-40 in 59 GP) and from the blue line defensemen Jack Malinski (4-36-40 in 51 GP) and James Goffredo (13-24-37 in 58 GP).
It’s no surprise who their leaders in their three playoff games against the Minot Minotauros were, but the head turner is how successful they’ve been on the power play. Salani (4-1-5 in the postseason) has three power play goals in the playoffs, Zacher (3-2-5) has two goals and assists on the man advantage and Morrissey (0-5-5) has four of his five points on the power play. Malinski (1-2-3), Josh Giulani (1-1-2), Goffredo (1-1-2), and Cook (0-2-2) all have no points outside of the power play. Though in a small sample size of just three games, Austin’s man advantage has been lethal so far, scoring 8 power play goals on just 13 opportunities.
“Obviously you look at the numbers and their power play was probably the difference. You’re clipping along at 60 some percent, that’s a problem for the other team. I don’t know that you can win a series and give the other team 61% (61.5% to be precise) unless you have only like three or four power plays. I don’t even know, I’m not doing that much math,” admits Millen. “We’re certainly going to have to be better in that department; killing penalties and discipline. It’d be nice to have our power play get a little better as well. Special teams always are something, but Austin is a real good team, a real solid team and we’re gonna have to play a real solid game.”
To combat the Bruins’ power play, St. Cloud’s penalty kill was perfect in their Round 1 series with Aberdeen, not only successfully killing off all 7 penalties, scoring a shorthanded goal, and importantly keeping the Wings to just 2.3 chances per game. The Norsemen finished the regular season 2nd in the NAHL in penalty kill percentage and have the best percentage of all 29 teams in regular and postseasons combined.
On the other side of the Bruins’ coin, Austin had the greatest goal differential in the division at +36 and a big part of that was surrendering a Central Division low 151 goals (2.52 goals against average) in the regular season. Goaltending was a key part and that has remained in the playoffs with Trent Wiemken playing every moment of the postseason for the Bruins in the crease. He’s got a 1.63 goals against average and has stopped 78 of 83 shots on goal for a .940 save percentage with one shutout. Millen gives the scouting report on Wiemken, but says there’s no secret to his strong play. “He’s just solid. They’ve had a bunch of injuries in the net and he’s had to play quite a bit down the stretch and he’s been solid. He’s been solid against us,” Millen recalls. (Wiemken has a 4-1-1 record against St. Cloud with a 2.57 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.) “I’m not a goalie guy, I just know he does a pretty good job of keeping pucks out of his net. Dalhy’s done the same the last three games and we’re gonna need a similar type of effort to have results.”
Ethan Dahlmeir has been even more impressive though for St. Cloud, leading the NAHL in the postseason with two shutouts and his 0.33 goals against average and .986 save percentage are best amongst any goalies who have played multiple games. He too has had great numbers against his Second Round opponent as he’s had a 1.97 goals against average and .936 save percentage in six games against Austin.
While Dahlmeir has been a force in the playoffs, his teammates in front of him have been a huge part of his success; blocking shots, breaking up plays and keeping high scoring chances to a minimum. “We’ve talked about the commitment in front of him for sure, it’s a total team deal, no question about it. I think obviously we did a better job of eliminating Grade-A chances than the previous weekend at the end of the regular season, that’s for sure,” assesses Millen. “Something that we need to do and always need to get a little better at, no question. Manage pucks, not fuel their offense and try to spend as little time as possible in your end.”
Millen doesn’t expect Austin to try to reinvent the wheel and change up much from the regular season. “I have seen some bits and pieces (from the Austin-Minot playoff series) and we’ll do a little more digging. I don’t think there’s anything that’s earth-shattering or that they’ve created anything new,” Millen concludes. “I think they are pretty much what they have been. We’ve seen them a lot and we’ve seen them a lot quite recently. I think we pretty much know what to expect but now you gotta execute and do the little things.” (The last seven Norsemen games including the playoffs were against the Aberdeen Wings but the three games prior to that, on April 1st, March 30th and March 25th, were all against the Austin Bruins.)
The season series between the Norsemen and the Bruins was about as tight as it could be. In the regular season the two teams met twelve times with each team coming away with six wins and five of those contests requiring overtime. Austin edged St. Cloud in the season series simply by having one more loss in extra time, 6-3-1-2 to 6-4-1-1. Three more games between the two teams ended in regulation but with just a one-goal differential and each team ended up scoring 33 goals in the season series. This playoff series has all the writing on the wall to go the distance and require all five games.
Games 1 and 2 are in Austin this weekend with the puck dropping at 7:05 both Friday and Saturday night. If you’re not able to attend the games you can watch them on hockeytv.com with Jimmy Lilledahl on the call and Erick Zamora providing color commentary.
Game 3 is back in St. Cloud at the MAC on Friday, May 12th and unless either team sweeps, Game 4 would be Saturday, May 13th in St. Cloud too. Both games will get underway at 7:00 and tickets can be purchased at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com. And for Game 3 next Friday the first 100 fans will receive a free set of 2022-23 St. Cloud Norsemen trading cards from Rengel Printing.
If Game 5 were to be needed, that would be back at Riverside Arena on Sunday, May 14th, at 5:05 pm.