The St. Cloud Norsemen’s season is on the line and it all comes down to the last weekend of play in Aberdeen this weekend. Of course, the same can be said for Minot, North Iowa, Aberdeen and Bismarck. None of them are in, and none of them are out. St. Cloud is in the most enviable position of the five though; they need the least to clinch a playoff spot (a win, OR a Minot regulation loss OR a North Iowa regulation loss), they need the least to wrap up home ice (2 points; so a win in either game or getting to overtime both nights), and they are the only team besides Austin (who already clinched the Central Division title) who can’t finish last in the division. Of course, the difference between fifth and sixth is almost nothing, as both positions will miss the postseason.
The Norsemen and Wings will battle for the second weekend in a row and the last two games, like the first six in the season series, went Aberdeen’s way. Friday’s game was a 5-1 Wings win despite the Norsemen outshooting them 35-26. The shots on goal disparity was even greater Saturday with that stat going St. Cloud’s way 40-19 and the Norsemen did pick up a point for their effort but ultimately fell in overtime 2-1. St. Cloud is 0-4-1-1 against Aberdeen, but a win would throw the first six games’ results out the window and get the job of securing home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason done.
St. Cloud Assistant Coach Brock Kautz didn’t like Aberdeen coming away with both wins this past weekend but felt the Norsemen did some positive things. “We’re not happy with the results that we had last weekend; we felt that we played pretty hard Saturday and their goalie was really solid and shut us down. We’re gonna have to go with that same attitude and mindset,” explains Kautz. “We know what we’re capable of, that we had chances, and we just gotta find a way to make their goalies uncomfortable,”
There’e no getting around the fact that the Norsemen have played the Wings six times and Aberdeen has six wins, but Kautz knows those games have been tight and a lot of them could have gone either way. “We haven’t had success against this team this year but I think that in the games we have played against them, we’ve given them a good test and we’ve just come up a little bit short,” Kautz confides. “We’re right there against this team; we know that we don’t have an ‘x’ by our name (indicating clinched a playoff spot) and they don’t either.”
If it feels like there’s more on the line going into the last weekend of the season for the whole Central Division than there typically is, that’s absolutely the case. “There’s only one team that’s clinched a playoff spot going into the last weekend in our division, which is unheard of, so you can expect a huge push by every team, every player, and we’re no different even though we’re in second place,” reasons Kautz. “We know that we control our own destiny and if we can go get the job done then we know that we’re going to be playing in the playoffs. It’s a much better spot to be in than hoping for teams to lose; knowing that if we win we’re in. That’s the mindset we’re going in with and we’re excited for the opportunity and the challenge.”
St. Cloud Norsemen Head Coach Corey Millen agrees the Norsemen played well at times last weekend but feels they should and could have gotten a full 60-minute performance, or 120 minutes on the weekend. “We did some good things; obviously, we’d like to get a little more consistency. We gotta do some things that are going to make it more difficult for their goaltending and create more opportunities for us,” Millen rationalizes. “So those are things we’re trying to emphasize and hopefully we can be better at it.”
All hockey teams battle through injuries, particularly late in the season, but St. Cloud seems to have been bit especially hard by the injury bug over the last several months. Kautz is proud of how his players have risen to the challenge of having to play shorthanded. “It’s a part of the game; injuries happen and the beauty of our game is that it’s a team sport and when somebody goes down, that means there’s opportunity for somebody else,” says Kautz, finding the silver lining. “We have the right mindset in the locker room with the guys that we have. They’re gonna step up and embrace the challenge and embrace the opportunity. It’s been fun to watch some of the kids gets more opportunity and kinda see what they’re willing to do for it. It’s tough to lose some players but it’s a part of the game and we have the right mindset for the kids that are putting the jerseys on.”
Aberdeen is paced by Nikolai Tishkevich in goals and points (19-20-39 in 54 games played) though Alexander Gullichsen, Michael Casey and Patrick O’Connell all are north of 30 points too. At the blueline, Devon Carlstrom leads the team in assists and points from a defenseman (4-21-25 in 58 GP). The Wings are tied for 21st of the 29 teams in goals scored per game with 2.76. They rank better defensively as their 2.98 goals against per game is 16th, and they’re particularly strong when Cole Moore tends the net. The Toronto, Ontario native is 22-16-3-3 with his 2.61 goals against average ranking 21st amongst qualified NAHL goalies and his .918 save percentage the 15th best in the league.
Moore was a big reason Aberdeen got a road sweep last weekend and he was rewarded as he was named the NAHL Bauer Hockey Central Division Star of the Week for his efforts. Coach Millen talks about the key to getting pucks past the Bowling Green commit. “We gotta get guys to the net, we gotta get guys in front of him and take his eyes away,” Millen breaks it down. “All the little details that we talk about on a daily basis. We just gotta be a little more determined and be better at it.”
The Norsemen would love to get into the postseason on their own with a victory, but Kautz understands that the most important thing is just getting their ticket punched any way possible. “You know that once you’re in anything can happen, everyone starts 0-0 in playoffs if you make it. We obviously just wanna make sure that we do get in and if another team gets us in, we’re not gonna be upset by that,” admits Kautz. “But just knowing that if we win we’re in, it’s a good position to be in. We know that once you are in, it doesn’t matter what seed you are, who you are, who you play; you start with the same record as your opponent. Every game means something so it’s a good challenge that we hope that we get to face next week.”
The Norsemen battle Aberdeen twice on the weekend with the puck dropping Friday and Saturday at 7:15. You can watch the games online at the home for NAHL action, www.hockeytv.com.