The St. Cloud Norsemen went into the playoffs with a record of 0-3-1-0 in their last four games, all at the hands of the Aberdeen Wings. St. Cloud was 0-6-1-1 in the season series with Aberdeen, tasting defeat all eight times they met the Wings. But, as St. Cloud Norsemen Assistant Coach Brock Kautz said in a quote for a Norsemen article last week, ““That’s the beauty of playoffs; everyone’s 0-0 and, quite frankly, nothing matters in the first 60 games.” (For reference you can find the article online at: https://www.stcloudnorsemen.com/st-cloud-may-have-stumbled-down-the-stretch-but-are-ready-for-a-deep-playoff-run.) Nowhere is there a better example of that than in the St. Cloud-Aberdeen series as the Norsemen won 2-1 Friday night in regulation and followed that up with a 2-0 victory Saturday, driving out of South Dakota with a commanding 2-0 games lead in a Best-of-Five series.
Friday night the Norsemen took the wind out of the sails of the Odde Ice Center just 86 seconds into the weekend as the trio of Carter Bradley, Andrew Clarke, and Tyler Dysart jousted for the puck at St. Cloud’s defensive left wing boards before flipping the puck out of the zone. It bounced off Aberdeen’s Nick Justice’s glove and Dysart raced up the ice and tied up Justice. Clarke hit Dysart out in front of the net and with his back to the net, Dysart caught it on his forehand and spun and fired on his backhand in one motion, surprising Wings goalie Cole Moore and beating him high, glove-side at the 1:26 mark. The Norsemen would double their lead on a penalty kill as the Wings made a miscue and dropped a pass at neutral ice for an Aberdeen player but it was picked off by Hunter Hanson. Hanson had one man to beat and his adversary got caught up in his own feet and fell, leaving Hanson all alone. Hanson cut in from the right side and got to the left, firing a shot on his backhand that Moore stopped but popped the puck up and Kade Peterson came over and slapped the puck in out of mid-air 6:20 into the game. The Wings immediately protested but the officials correctly pointed out the puck was hit while it was well below the crossbar’s height and the Norsemen stunned the Aberdeen crowd with a 2-0 lead minutes into the game that would stand through the end of the first. St. Cloud both outscored and outshot the Wings by two, leading 11-9 in the SOG department.
Aberdeen outshot St. Cloud 8-7 in a rather uneventful second period with no goals and just one penalty called. In the third the Wings drew within one when Patrick O’Connell took a shot from a bad angle at the left circle and it was blocked but the rebound went to Jordan Ronn in the high slot above the circles. Ronn’s follow up shot was partially blocked but trickled through the defense and Ronn slipped through the traffic, skated onto it, took it straight to the net and deposited it via Ethan Dahlmeir’s five-hole 5:46 into the third period. The Wings got 7 of the 11 shots on goal in the third period and outshot the Norsemen 24-22 for the game but Dahlmeir was the difference and preserved a 2-1 regulation victory.
Saturday night had a first period that only saw penalties but saw a bunch of them as St. Cloud was whistled for one but it was an off-setting roughing call while Aberdeen was assessed for three other minors, including two at the same time, 18:31 into the frame. Unfortunately, the Norsemen were unable to convert on the 5-on-3 and the penalties rolled over into the second period and with the power play chances the Norsemen led 8-6 in the shots on goal department.
Aberdeen killed off those 31 seconds to start the middle frame and that could have been a huge momentum swing for the Wings, but the Norsemen struck twice in the first 1:11 of Aberdeen getting back to full strength to wear down the home team. The scoring got going when Bradley tracked down a puck that was dumped down into the St. Cloud right defensive corner and the St. Louis, MO native paid the price, absorbing a hit and backhanding it along the back boards to Duke Kiffin in the left corner. Kiffin lifted it high in the air up the left wing side and it bounced at the feet of Daniels Murnieks at the Norsemen offensive side of the centerline. Murnieks skated in on a 2-on-1 with Clarke and rifled a shot into the back of the twine from the left faceoff dot at the 1:13 mark. The Norsemen came right back on the same shift and after Aberdeen got the puck deep off the center ice restart, Wyatt Wurst helped the Norsemen break out of their zone and they’d eventually get the puck deep. Jack Wandmacher below the goal line threw it into the slot and it kicked off of Wurst’s skate straight to Murnieks who buried the puck with as much velocity as his first goal, scoring 29 seconds after the initial tally. No power plays came about the rest of the period with the teams trading roughing minors at 2:24 of the frame and Aberdeen edged St. Cloud 11-10 in shots on goal but the Norsemen took the only two goals of the game into the locker room with a 2-0 lead.
St. Cloud Norsemen Assistant Coach Brock Kautz knows how vital it was to steal momentum back from Aberdeen after their killed off two full minutes of a 2-man advantage, albeit over two different periods. “On the bench, it’s making sure the guys are plugged in and knowing that a shift after special teams is almost as important as during special teams. Those guys that were coming out right after that, we made sure they were ready and they knew what was at stake,” explains Kautz. “Them knowing that we didn’t capitalize on that, maybe they were chomping at the bit a little more to go out there and make a difference, and it was a good shift by those guys to be able to score two goals and kinda win the game for us there.”
The Wings threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Norsemen in the third period, outshooting them 10-3, but Dahlmeir and the St. Cloud defense didn’t even bend, let alone break. Aberdeen’s lone power play chance of the night came early in the third period but the Norsemen killed it off and kept the Wings off the scoresheet, coming away with a 2-0 win despite being outshot 27-21 for the night. While it wasn’t an offensive outburst, the Norsemen were able to score four goals and twelve points on the weekend to Aberdeen’s one goal and one point.
Dahlmeir was named one of the NAHL Robertson Cup Three Stars of the Night Saturday for his 27-save shutout performance and Kautz, a former goaltender in this league, is very happy with how the Lakeville, MN native battled. “He played very well and gave us a chance to win both games. In the playoffs, you need guys to step up and we’re definitely happy that he was able to do so,” Kautz compliments. “He was just confident in getting to his marks and I thought he had a really good week of practice last week to prepare for the playoffs and had the right mindset going in.”
Bradley had an assist or was on the ice for all three of the Norsemen’s even strength goals in Aberdeen. He had two assists, was +2 and would have been +3 had he not made a good change and jumped off the ice before Dysart scored Friday to set the tone for the weekend. Bradley may arguably be the most improved Norsemen from the start of the season and Kautz, who affectionately refers to him as “Brads,” saw a lot of great things out of Carter in his first two NAHL playoff games. “The biggest thing is he’s just gotten way more comfortable making plays, and I think a lot of that just comes from experience and playing more minutes. Obviously we’ve had some injuries throughout the year, but Carter’s been one of those guys that has been in (the lineup),” points out Kautz. (Bradley wasn’t with St. Cloud for the NAHL Showcase or the opening weekend of NAHL Central Division play for the Norsemen but has dressed in 53 of 56 games since.) “We know what to expect out of him; he’s a competitor and he’s willing to do the little things. (He’s) Maybe not the guy that’s always gonna be on the stat sheet, but somebody that takes a lot of pride in doing the little stuff and keeping pucks out of our net. (We’re) Obviously pleased with his ability to eat some minutes and play good minutes doing so.”
While Dahlmeir took home the NAHL’s accolades for his performance Saturday, it could have just as easily been Murnieks, who potted the only two goals of the contest for either side. Kautz is really glad his effort reaped the rewards that it did. “He’s a hard worker so it was nice that he got rewarded for his work,” Kautz praises. “It was a good shift for him and his linemates; one was a 2-on-1 with a good shot and the other was a loose puck in front that he was able to pound home. He’s been a consistent worker and someone that we’ve leaned on for sure. It’s nice when you do get rewarded on the stat sheet for that.”
The two teams will face off in St. Cloud for Game 3 this Friday night at the MAC with a 7:15 puck drop. Hopefully, the Norsemen can wrap it up in three and it won’t be needed, but if Aberdeen wins Friday and forces a fourth game, Game 4 would be Saturday night at 7:00 in St. Cloud. Get your tickets at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com.