This past weekend the Minotauros and fifteen other teams should have been starting the Robertson Cup Playoffs. The Tauros would have been embarking on their eighth consecutive playoff journey, the longest current streak in the Central Division, and second longest in the NAHL behind Fairbanks’s 16 year run. Instead however the sports world, along with much of the rest of the world, is in a holding pattern due to COVID-19. So we decided to take this unexpected down time to take a look back at how the truncated season went for the Tauros and our Central Division rivals as well as a quick look ahead going into what will undoubtedly be an unusual offseason. We will start with the Tauros and then go through the rest of the teams in order of the standings.
For a young team that had just five 20-year-olds, all forwards, some growing pains were to be expected, an 8-1-3 start was not. Despite their youth this group was good at avoid long slumps and had a winning record against the Central Division. They posted 192 goals, the most in the division, and their 3.84 goals-per-game ranked second in the league. When the season was cut short due to COVID-19 the Tauros were on pace to extend their Central Division best run of consecutive playoff appearance to eight years. From there it is anyone’s guess what would have happened but the Tauros certainly had the offensive depth and goaltending in NCAA DI Wisconsin committ Ben Garrity to makes noise in the postseason along with a young defensive corps that was playing less and less like the young group they were as the season progressed.
Overall Record: 27-16-7 (61 pts. in 50 games played)
Record vs. Central Division: 24-16-6 (54 pts. in 46 games played)
College Commits: 7 NCAA DI
Players Eligible to Return: 17
Low Point of the Season: The Tauros were good at avoiding any prolonged losing streaks, getting swept in only three weekend series all year long and having just one three game losing streak. However from November 29th to December 13th the Tauros went 2-4-0.
High Point of the Season: November 9th through November 27th; the Tauros won five games in a row starting with a win in Aberdeen and ending with a 6-3 win in Bismarck. In between the Tauros won the annual Veterans Day game on the Pepsi Rink at Maysa Arena 4-1 over Aberdeen, and went to Cloquet and swept the Wilderness avenging an earlier sweep at the hands of Minnesota.
Signature Weekend: The Tauros swept the Bobcats in a late January home-and-home. First on Friday night the Tauros fell behind on the first shot of the game just 1:35 into the contest. That deficit held until Braeden Bartoo tied the game midway through the third. When Bismarck again took the lead with just 1:32 left to play it appeared the Tauros were doomed. But Kevin Ness tied the game with 11 seconds left in regulation and Will Crull finished a feed from Cody Sherman to get the win in OT. The next night the Cats again took a 1-0 lead this time with only 29 seconds left in the first period. But NAHL Rookie of the Year Kyler Kleven tied the game 1:00 into the second and Sherman scored eight minutes later to give the Tauros a 2-1 lead. From there Garrity shut the door including several thrilling saves during a 6-on-3 power play late in the third. The Tauro fans roared louder and louder with each save through the prolonged penalty kill to the point you could hardly hear the final horn signaling that the Tauros won 2-1. In total Garrity stopped 64 of 67 shots for the weekend sweep and was named the NAHL Central Star of the Week.
Reasons for Optimism for Next Season: The Kleven/Jay Buchholz/Dan Russell line are all eligible to return and should be in the conversation for the best line in the entire NAHL. All of the Tauros defense group is eligible to return as well, though Sam Skinner will be heading to school. In goal, like Skinner, Ben Garrity will head to Wisconsin for his Freshman year despite having a year of eligibility remaining, but A.J. Ruskowski showed he’s more than capable posting a 7-3-1 record as Garrity’s backup. In his final six starts appearances Ruskowski posted a .935 SV% and 1.976 GAA.
Reasons for Pessimism for Next Season: The young Tauros group showed a lot of promise and may lose several planned returners to the USHL. Replacing Skinner, who had more points in a single season than any other Tauros defenseman in history, will be no easy task.
Key Returning Players: Aside from Kleven, Buchholz, and Russell; Joseph Harguindeguy and Jack Westlund both showed strong two-way games and while posting 20 and 26 games respectively. On the back end Crull and Top Prospects defenseman Owen Baumgartner each showed the ability to contribute at both ends of the ice.
The defending Robertson Cup and Central Cup champions stumbled a bit out of the gate but corrected course quickly and were on pace to raise another Central Division regular season championship banner to the rafters of the Odde Ice Center. Two points ahead of the Bismarck Bobcats with a game in hand when the season shut down the Wings were in control of their own destiny. Their 187 goals was second most in the division behind the Tauros but their measly 122 allowed was the division’s best, as was their +65 goal differential. Without a postseason this year’s Wings will not be able to prove if they were as good as last year’s group. They were 10 points off of last season’s incredible 97 point pace but look at times to be just as, if not more, dangerous. The short season did not stop the Wings from securing 13 NCAA DI commits.
Overall Record: 34-11-6 (74 pts. in 51 games played)
Record vs. Central Division: 29-9-5 (63 pts. in 43 games played)
College Commits: 13 NCAA DI, 1 NCAA DIII
Players Eligible to Return: 12
Low Point of the Season: For the Wings the low point of the season came early. A lot of new players led to a 1-2-1 performance at the NAHL Showcase had the Wings looking as if they missed some of the departed players from the Championship team. A 1-0-3 performance the next two weekends against the Austin Bruin kept the question of whether or not the Wings had the same killer instinct as the previous season.
High Point of the Season: The Wings corrected course and went on a 15 game point streak in which then went 14-0-1 from November 15th to January 4th. The run launched the Wings back to the top of the Central and was characterized by the group finding ways to win.
Signature Weekend: “I would say the point of our season where we found out who we were as a team was against Chippewa in Chippewa Now 1st and 2nd. From that point on we showed we can be a top contender in a very good Central division against some really good teams.” – Aberdeen Wings Head Coach Scott Langer.
Reason for Optimism for Next Season: The Wings have had the best record in the Central Division in each of the last three seasons. Their staff and veteran players have built a culture that, while sometimes viewed as brash by those outside of Aberdeen, no doubt also values hard work and results in winning.
Reason for Pessimism for Next Season: With just 12 players eligible to return there will again be new faces just as there were at the start of this one, though obviously Langer and his staff have shown an ability to quickly incorporate new players into their system. Perhaps the Wings’ biggest reason for pessimism is the overall quality of the Central Division.
Key Returning Players: Captain Jake Beaune returns for his third season in the Hub City after posting 12 goals and 17 assists from the blue line. Clayton Cosentino’s 31 points are the most among Wings eligible to return and goaltender Jake Sibell will be counted on in net as Henry Welsch departs for NCAA DI UMass-Lowell.
*Aberdeen Wings recap completed with input from Wings Head Coach/G.M. Scott Langer.
Perhaps no team was stung as much on the ice by the cancellation of the remainder of the NAHL season than the Bismarck Bobcats. It was clear that they had been building for the 2020 Playoffs long before the 2019-2020 Season. Retuning a veteran group the Bobcats had 13 players playing in their third season of junior hockey, six of whom spent their entire careers as Bobcats. Additionally five more players were in their second season as Cats. The experience showed early as the Cats got off to a 15-1-2 start. While the Cats could not keep up that unbelievable pace for a full season, they had themselves just two points behind Aberdeen coming off of a weekend sweep of the Wings when the season was cancelled. Perhaps the most encouraging stat for the Bobcats heading into the post season was their recent dominance of the Wings winning the last four meetings against their second biggest rival.
Overall Record: 32-12-8 (72 pts. in 52 games played)
Record vs. Central Division: 30-11-7 (67 pts. in 48 games played)
College Commits: 14 NCAA DI, 1 NCAA DIII
Players Eligible to Return: 14
Low Point of the Season: Much like the Tauros and Wings the Cats did well to avoid long down stretches. Though in January, injuries piled up for the Cats with 7 players unable to answer the bell the Cats went 0-3-1 in a four game stretch against the Wilderness and Tauros.
High Point of the Season: The aforementioned 15-1-2 start to the season is the obvious answer for the Cats who were seeing the blossoms of the seeds they planted with a youth movement for the 2017-18 season. Their 17-11-6 record after the win streak is certainly respectable, especially considering in included six wins over Aberdeen; but overall a 15-1-2 start to the season is the reason the Cats were in the position they were in.
Signature Weekend: For the Cats sweeping the Wings in what turned out to be the final weekend of the season showed that the sweep a month prior was not a fluke and the Cats were ready for the playoffs.
Reason for Optimism for Next Season: Despite having the most veteran team in the Central the Bobcats still have 14 players eligible to return next season including leading scorer Will Hillman and both of their goaltenders Andrew Miller and Ryan Ullan.
Reason for Pessimism for Next Season: The Cats will have to rebuild their back end with five members from their defense corpse ageing out. Carl Fish, Jack Olsen, Ethan Gauer, Willy Stauber, and Sam Martel all will need to be replaced and that is just counting the age-out players and not accounting for players who leave for the USHL.
Key Returning Players: As mentioned above the Cats return their leading scorer in Hillman and a pair of strong goaltenders. Also back in the fold is Lars Rødne who posted 37 points on 20 goals and 17 assists this season.
*Bismarck Bobcats recap completed with input from Bobcats Director of Media and Broadcasting Andrew Weiss.
The Austin Bruins muddled along early in the season reaching mid-November with a pedestrian 9-7-4 record. From there they went 3-2-0 over their next five including a loss to St. Cloud on December 6th. Then the Bruins kicked it into gear playing 16-7-3 hockey from December 7th on. The Bruins .673 point percentage starting December 7th was the second best in the Central from that point forward. Veteran forward Dante Sheriff finished 4th in the league with 62 points and was named NAHL Central M.V.P. and a All-NAHL First Team forward. Even losing then leading scorer Ben Almquist to the University of Minnesota-Duluth at Christmas did not slow down the Bruins. Despite the strong run through the second half of the season however the Bruins found themselves just two points ahead of the Tauros for third place in the Central with four consecutive games head-to-head on the schedule that were due to start the day after the NAHL suspended the season. The Tauros were 4-2-2 against the Bruins while the Bruins were 4-3-1 by virtue of three of the first eight meetings going to shootouts. There is little doubt that the cancelled head-to-head matchups would have determined the finishing order for the two final playoff spots in the Central.
Overall Record: 28-16-7 (63 pts. in 51 games played)
Record vs. Central Division: 20-13-6 (46 pts. in 39 games played)
College Commits: 4 NCAA DI
Players Eligible to Return: 20
Low Point of the Season: As discussed, the Bruins started slowly and perhaps no point was lower than a run from October 10th through the 23rd during which the Bruins went 0-3-2 in three games against the Wilderness and two with the Bobcats. They were outscored 16-6 over the five game stretch despite two of the games going to extra time.
High Point of the Season: The Bruins broke out of their mediocre start with a ten-game point streak during which they went 8-0-2 from December 7th to January 11th. The run included splits with the Wilderness and Tauros, a sweep of the Bobcats and four wins over St. Cloud.
Signature Win: While the Bruins really came to life in December the groundwork was laid during a come-from-behind win on November 29th in the Spam Can over the Wilderness. Falling behind 4-0 in the first period on home ice the Bruins battled back. A late first period goal by Connor Mylymok ended the first on a positive note. Hugh Larkin scored less than a minute into the second to give the Bruins even more hope. Then, 29 seconds after the Bruins’ Carson Riddle beat Dane Stoyanoff in a fight, Almquist scored at 18:53 of the second to make it a one goal game going into the third. Mylymok struck again just 36 seconds into the third to tie the game and the Bruins would take the lead on Peter Jacobs’ power play goal at 9:35. Almquist would add an empty netter with just over a minute remaining which turned into the eventual game winner as the Wilderness got one back with just 23 seconds remaining.
Reason for Optimism for Next Season: With 20 players eligible to return from a group that clearly came together halfway through the season the Bruins will not have to rebuild much during an the unusual offseason.
Key Returning Players: Mylymok managed 17 points in 25 games this and heads into his final junior season. Tiernan Shoudy was fourth on the team in scoring despite being tied for youngest player on the team with his twin brother Travis. Cullen Rush had the most points of any returning defenseman with a goal and 12 assists. With 20 players coming back the biggest returning asset for the Bruins may just be continuity.
*Austin Bruins recap completed with input from Bruins Director of Broadcasting/Media Relations T.J. Chillot.
The Wilderness were on the outside looking in with regards to the Robertson Cup Playoffs when the season unceremoniously ended. The Tauros saw first hand that the Wilderness were an obviously talented team when they lost a pair of meetings in Cloquet the first weekend of October by scores of 7-6 and 5-1. An inconsistent team they hit the .500 mark seven times on the season at 1-1-0, 3-3-0, 13-13-1, 16-16-1, 17-17-1, 21-21-3, and 22-22-3. Despite the inconsistency, the Wilderness were still within five points of the Tauros for final Central Division’s final playoff spot. Increasing their slim chances was a set with the Tauros on the Pepsi Rink scheduled for the final weekend of the regular season.
Overall Record: 26-22-4 (56 pts. in 52 games played)
Record vs. Central Division: 19-20-1 (39 pts. in 40 games played)
College Commits: 7 NCAA DI, 2 NCAA DIII
Players Eligible to Return: 14
Low Point of the Season: If the season had finished with the Wilderness unable to make the playoffs the 1-7-0 stretch from November 9th to December 13th, will be the reason. The Wilderness lost seven games to divisional opponents.
High Point of the Season: Minnesota’s playoff hopes may have been slim but the Wilderness were not going out quietly. The Wilderness went 4-0-1 over their last five games, with a win over Bismarck, a sweep of Chippewa, and taking three of four points from Janesville on the road.
Signature Weekend: A home sweep of the Bismarck Bobcats January 17th and 18th. The Wilderness held the Cats to just two goals on the weekend after Bismarck had scored 12 in the previous weekend meetings between the clubs. The sweep came after a road split in Minot and combined to force the Wilderness back into the playoff conversation.
Reason for Optimism for Next Season: The Wilderness finished the up and down campaign with a winning record in Jon Vaillancourt’s first year behind the bench. Next year will be the first since 2017 the Wilderness will not have a coaching change over the summer. Additionally the Wilderness may return as many as five defensemen and a pair of goaltenders including UND commit Kaleb Johnson.
Reason for Pessimism for Next Season: The Wilderness will lose their top nine scorers who all age out this season. Of the players who do return just four had at least 10 points last season.
Key Returning Players: North Dakota commit Kaleb Johnson comes back after seeing a .021 jump in his save percentage from .889 in his rookie season to .910 this year. Zach Michaelis had eight points in 16 games after joining the Wilderness from Elk River High School where he served as captain. Michaelis is already committed to NCAA DI Nebraska-Omaha. Zane Demsey was acquired via trade from Chippewa in late January and was selected to the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament as a member of the Red Selects team assembled by NHL Central Scouting.
*Minnesota Wilderness recap completed with input from Wilderness Broadcaster Marty Hill.
St. Cloud Blizzard
Despite moving to a new home in St. Cloud this season the Blizzard are the second oldest team in the Central Division. Originally born in Alexandria Minnesota the Blizzard have been in the NAHL since the 2003-2004 season. Their nine consecutive playoff appearance from 2005 through 2013 is the longest such run anyone in the division has had. A new staff led by former NHLer’s Corey Millen and Tom Chorske will look to return the Blizzard to those glory days but the task will not be easy. The Blizzard won just ten games in the abbreviated NAHL season. Despite the struggles the Blizzard there will still bright spots for Blizzard including two wins on the Pepsi Rink at Maysa Arena.
Overall Record: 10-37-5 (25 pts. in 52 games played)
Record vs. Central Division: 8-33-3 (19 pts. in 44 games played)
College Commits: 2 NCAA DI
Players Eligible to Return: 15
Low Point of the Season: The Blizzard struggled from mid-December on after a respectable 8-14-4 start the St. Cloud went 2-23-1 to close out the campaign.
High Point of the Season: A 2-0-2 showing at the NAHL Showcase to open the season had the St. Cloud Blizzard looking like they would not be a pushover like they had been in Brookings. Wins over Topeka and Maine along with an overtime loss to Janesville and a shootout loss to Corpus Christi got the Blizzard off to a good start.
Signature Win: The Blizzard picked up their final win of the season on January 24th with a 5-1 beating of Aberdeen. After a scoreless first period Luke Aquaro opened the scoring late in the second with a power play goal for St. Cloud. Former Tauro Ryan Green and Alec Johnson scored 24 seconds apart early in the third to give the Blizzard a 3-0 lead. The Wings did get one back late but a pair of empty netters for St. Cloud sealed the deal. The win gave the Blizzard at least one victory over all five Central Division opponents.
Reason for Optimism for Next Season: Despite a poor first year in St. Cloud on the ice the Blizzard have plenty of reasons for optimism. A new front office on both the hockey and business side will build a new culture in The Granite City. New Head Coach Corey Millen was runner up for NAHL Coach of the Year in 2014 and led the Wilderness to the Robertson Cup in 2015. Assistant Coach Casey Mignone remains on staff as well to help Millen with the transition. In the front office Tom Chorske takes over as the Director of Operations and Assistant G.M. Both Millen and Chorske had long professional careers including eight and ten years in the NHL respectively.
Reason for Pessimism for Next Season: With a new staff and a roster to overhaul in the uber-competitive Central Division the Blizzard will have to deal with the extra degree of difficulty brought on by the COVID-19 causing tryout camps to have to be on hold for the time being.
Key Returning Players: The Blizzard to return some key cogs from last year’s team including leading scorer Jack Suchy. Also back are Luke Aquaro who was second in points and first in goals for the Blizzard and Ryan O’Neil who posted 12 goals as a rookie.
*St. Cloud Blizzard recap completed with input from Blizzard Director of Operations and Assistant G.M. Tom Chorske.