The St. Cloud Norsemen have just one game with the Austin Bruins this weekend but with a lot on the line Saturday. The Norsemen currently sit tied for second place with North Iowa but the Bulls have a game in hand and will use it Friday as they host the Minot Minotauros . The Norsemen have split rooting interests in that game; they’d love to see Minot win in regulation to remain tied with North Iowa, but a North Iowa regulation win would take bring down St. Cloud’s magic number for clinching a playoff berth from 5.0 to 4.0
Another key factor in this weekend’s matchup is that if Austin wins Saturday, in regulation or in overtime/a shootout, and if North Iowa fails to gain more than two points in their two games, either with a regulation loss either night or overtime/shootout losses both nights, then the Bruins would clinch the Central Division title.
You might think that trying to avoid Austin clinching the division against St. Cloud would be a motivating factor but St. Cloud Assistant Coach Brock Kautz says the Norsemen have their eyes elsewhere and not worried about what milestones Austin is reaching for. “No, absolutely not. We’re just completely focused on the task at hand and that’s for us to get two points against Austin this weekend. Understanding the position we’re in, nobody’s eliminated from the playoffs in our division, so just understanding that everybody’s fighting for their lives and if you go into games lightly or thinking that it’s gonna be easy you’re gonna be in big, big trouble,” warns Kautz. “We just gotta focus on being where your feet are, understand that you need to get two points if you want to continue to play. If you’re giving up points every weekend you’re probably not gonna be playing when you want to be in the playoffs.”
Every team in the NAHL Central Division has had their hands full all season long when facing the Austin Bruins, and this weekend will be no different. The Bruins are not only best in goals scored and goals per game in the division (3.25, 8th amongst the 29 NAHL teams) but have surrendered the fewest goals and have the lowest goals against per game (2.42, 6th in the league) in the Central. Despite those gaudy numbers, the Norsemen are one of the few teams that has had success against the Bruins; the Norsemen have nine points in nine games going 4-4-1-0 against the top team in the division.
St. Cloud has had some success against the Austin squad but Kautz knows just how impressive this Bruins team is. “They’re very solid from top to bottom; every line, every defenseman, they seem to play the right way,” Kautz compliments. “We’ve got to be disciplined, stick to the process, try to generate some O Zone time, and make their goalies uncomfortable and see what we can muster up.”
Austin’s leading scorer Gavin Morrissey (16-39-55) is tied for 7th in the NAHL in points while Walter Zacher (29-20-29) is also in the top 20, tied for 17th. James Goffredo (13-22-35) and Jack Malinski (4-31-35) are tied for 8th in points amongst defensemen while Goffredo and Dylan Cook (14-21-35) are tied for 9th in rookie scoring. Zacher’s 29 goals are second in the league, Morriseey’s 39 assists are fifth while Goffredo’s 13 goals from the blue line are only topped by Rihards Simanovics.
Not to be outdown, the goaltending is really stellar as well. Trent Wiemken (17-6-1-2) and Ethan Robertson (13-5-2-3) are a true goalie tandem as both have appeared in 27 games. Both are in the top ten in goals against average as Wiemken’s 2.06 gaa ranks 6th while he has a .916 save percentage and Robertson’s 2.15 gaa is 8th along with a save percentage of .915. Both goalies have three shutouts, which is tied for 10th in the NAHL along with St. Cloud’s Ethan Dahlmeir.
When talking about how to score against a couple of really talented goalies like Austin’s duo, Kautz was very specific in how to get the job done. “We gotta try to establish a presence in the offensive zone. Retrieve pucks, get a good forecheck going, hopefully force them to turn some pucks over and then generate maybe some second chance opportunities,” explains Kautz. “They are a disciplined team. They try not to give up a lot of odd man rushes and they definitely make you work 200 feet to score goals so we’re gonna have to be ready for that and detailed all over the ice if we wanna find success.”
Friday will be a night of just scoreboard watching for Norsemen fans with Minot in Mason City, IA taking on North Iowa and Aberdeen on the road facing Bismarck. No matter how those games go, St. Cloud fans are hoping those matchups end in regulation and the losing team doesn’t pick up the extra point. St. Cloud then drops the puck in Austin Saturday night at 7:05 and the game can be watched online at hockeytv.com.
The next home game for the Norsemen is Thursday, March 30th, against the same opponent as it will be the second of three straight versus Austin. Tickets for that game can be purchased online at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com.