The St. Cloud Norsemen have just six games left in the regular season, three each at home and on the road, and will play one of each against the Austin Bruins this weekend. While the Bruins’ playoff ticket has been punched and they already know they’ll be the #1 seed in the NAHL Central Division Robertson Cup Playoffs, St. Cloud could finish anywhere from second in the division to failing to qualify for the postseason. This makes every game, every period, every shift crucial for the Norsemen as they work to qualify for the playoffs and try to finish in as good of a position as possible.
While Austin may have the Central Division title wrapped up. St. Cloud Norsemen Head Coach Corey Millen doesn’t expect the Bruins to take their foot off the gas pedal. “No, I don’t expect that from anybody. You always expect them to be their best,” warns Millen. “They’re a really good team so we’ve got to be prepared to be our best.”
Coach Millen and the Norsemen were in a similar spot as Austin is currently last year, as St. Cloud ran away with the Central Division, winning it by 17 points. That allowed them to clinch the first weekend in April and give them two weekends left in the regular season to tinker with lineups, give players games off or even get Affiliate Players some games. But Millen points out that’s not as enviable of a position to be in as one might think. “It’s a really tough balancing act to be put in that position. I think that each coach is going to do things a little differently,” Millen points out. “I know last year we did rest some guys who played a lot of hockey at certain points. We did take some time to put some younger guys in and rest some guys. I have no idea how they’re going to approach it but we’ve got to come and play. No matter what’s going on, we’ve gotta play. We’ve got a lot at stake.”
In fairness, the Bruins do have something on the line as well; while no teams in the Central can catch them, there are 10 NAHL teams in the other three divisions that they could mathematically finish ahead of or behind and realistically six that they are still jockeying for position with. Should Austin advance to the Robertson Cup, that would affect seeding and being considered the “home team.”
The last four weekends of St. Cloud’s regular season are against just two teams and they face each on back-to-back weekends. The Norsemen will take on the Bruins this weekend for the second and third game in a three-game series with Austin and will finish the regular season with four straight against the Aberdeen Wings, in St. Cloud on April 7th and 8th and in Aberdeen April 14th and 15th.
St. Cloud Assistant Coach Brock Kautz admits that facing the same team on consecutive weekends is going to dial up the physicality and intensity. “Yeah for sure, especially at this time of the year when you see teams multiple times and you understand where you’re at in the standings and you know how important the points are,” explains Kautz. “You could say a little more is on the line, getting down to crunch time, and just understanding you need to beat the team you’re playing if you wanna have a shot at playing into the later half of April and into May.”
In other action around the Central Division, this weekend Minot is in Aberdeen and North Iowa travels to Bismarck to play the first two of six straight games between those opponents. Then to end the regular season, all six teams will face the same opponent for the last two weekends. While St. Cloud and Aberdeen battle it will be Austin and Minot swapping home series and Bismarck and North Iowa continuing their matchups. North Iowa currently sits alone in second place, a point ahead of St. Cloud who has a record of 26-20-3-5, good for 60 points. That’s two points ahead of Aberdeen, six better than Minot and eight clear of Bismarck. While all five of those teams can finish anywhere from 2nd to 6th the Norsemen could eliminate Bismarck, Minot or both from catching them as early as Saturday night, and with their magic number down to 3.5 could potentially clinch a playoff berth Saturday as well.
The Norsemen’s game with Austin in St. Cloud is on Thursday, March 30th, at 7:00 and has tickets still available online at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com. You can watch the rematch in Austin at 7:05 on Saturday with the broadcast online at hockeytv.com.