NAHL Central Division finals preview

Bobcats celebrate Central title in Austin

The Bismarck Bobcats celebrate their Central Division championship after defeating the Austin Bruins in Austin last April. Will the Bobcats win another Central title, or will Austin get its revenge?

Three more wins.

That’s what it takes for either the Austin Bruins or the Bismarck Bobcats to punch their ticket to the Robertson Cup national tournament in Frisco, Texas, from May 10-13. They will be joined there by the winners of the North, South, and West divisions. To see how those divisional playoffs are going, check out the playoff brackets on the NAHL website.

Austin and Bismarck got to this point by winning their first round series. Austin won its best-of-five series against the Minot Minotauros in four games. Bismarck dominated the Brookings Blizzard, sweeping the series and outscoring Brookings 20-6.

The series will be a rematch of last season’s Central Division finals. In that series, the teams split the first two games in Bismarck. Then Bismarck went to Austin and won the next two games and the series. That obviously left a bad taste in the mouths of the Austin fans and players.

This time around, as the number-one seed, Austin has home-ice advantage and the opportunity to reverse its fortunes and win the series in Bismarck in game three or four.

Updated NAHL Central Division playoff bracket

Updated NAHL Central Division playoff bracket

Let’s take a look at the schedule, the season series, and a comparison of the teams.

#1 Austin vs. #2 Bismarck

Playoff Schedule

    • Game 1: April 26 at 7:05 p.m. in Austin
    • Game 2: April 27 at 7:05 p.m. in Austin
    • Game 3: May 3 at 7:15 p.m. in Bismarck
    • Game 4: May 4 at 7:15 p.m. in Bismarck (if necessary)
    • Game 5: May 6 at 7:05 p.m. in Austin (if necessary)

Season Series

    • Wins: Tied at 5
    • Points: Tied at 12
    • Record in Austin: Tied at 3 (wins); Tied at 7 (points)
    • Record in Bismarck: Tied at 2 (wins); Tied at 5 (points)
    • Goals Scored: 39-37 in favor of Bismarck
    • Game Results:
      • 10/13/12 – in Austin – 4-2 Austin win
      • 10/19/12 – in Bismarck – 4-3 Bismarck win in a shootout
      • 10/20/12 – in Bismarck – 4-3 Austin win
      • 11/10/12 – in Austin – 5-1 Bismarck win
      • 2/8/13 – in Bismarck – 6-5 Austin win in a shootout
      • 2/9/13 – in Bismarck – 5-2 Bismarck win
      • 2/22/13 – in Austin – 4-3 Austin win in a shootout
      • 2/23/13 – in Austin – 8-3 Austin win
      • 3/22/13 – in Austin – 5-2 Bismarck win
      • 3/23/13 – in Austin – 4-3 Bismarck win in overtime

Could the season series between the two teams have been any more even? The teams tied in wins and points both home and away. One of the only edges went to Bismarck, and that was a very slight edge in goals scored at 39 to 37.

Bismarck did win the final two games on the road, however, the last of which was particularly noteworthy. Facing a 3-0 deficit with 6:05 left in the game, Mike Dockry scored to give the Bobcats their first goal of the night. With 2:48 left, Austin’s Brandon Wahlin received a checking from behind major and game misconduct, while Bismarck’s Levi Blom received a roughing double minor. In what would’ve been 4-on-4 hockey for two minutes, Bismarck pulled goalie Aaron Nelson for a one-man advantage and then Bismarck’s Matt Pohlkamp scored with 1:51 remaining. With Bismarck’s penalty over and Nelson still on the bench, Pohlkamp scored again with 31 seconds left. Then in overtime, still on the power play for Wahlin’s major, Bismarck scored off the stick of Joe Giordano to win in a stunning fashion.

You may also have seen this video clip of Austin’s play-by-play announcer from this game on SportsCenter. Hint: It was a clean hit!

I think it’s safe to say that Austin fans want to win this series extra badly, having the bad memories of this game along with last season’s divisional finals.

Since looking at the season series did almost nothing in predicting who might win this series, let’s look at a comparison of the two teams.

Team Comparisons

Austin Bismarck
Overall Regular-Season Record 42-11-7, 91 pts. (1st Central) 35-16-9, 79 pts. (2nd Central)
Home Regular-Season Record 20-4-4, 44 pts. 18-6-6, 42 pts.
Away Regular-Season Record 20-5-3, 43 pts. 17-10-3, 37 pts.
Neutral-Site Regular-Season Record 2-2-0, 4 pts. 1-3-0, 2 pts.
Last Ten Games (Including Playoffs) 7-1-2, 16 pts. 8-0-2, 18 pts.
Second Half of Regular-Season Record 21-6-3, 45 pts. 19-4-7, 45 pts.
Goals For/Against in Regular Season 223 (1st in Central, 2nd in NAHL) – 155 (2nd in Central, T-7th in NAHL) 183 (2nd in Central, T-11th in NAHL) – 140 (1st in Central, 2nd in NAHL)
Power Play in Regular Season 25.36% (1st in Central, 1st in NAHL) 16.25% (3rd in Central, T-10th in NAHL)
Penalty Kill in Regular Season 85.45% (1st in Central, 10th in NAHL) 85.16% (2nd in Central, 11th in NAHL)
Leading Scorers in Regular Season Brandon Wahlin (20 G, 49 A), AJ Reid (24 G, 40 A), CJ Smith (30 G, 29 A), John Simonson (27 G, 30 A), Jay Dickman (23 G, 32 A) Adam Knochenmus (19 G, 32 A), Patrick Moore (21 G, 29 A), Joe Giordano (13 G, 31 A), Bob Kinne (9 G, 19 A), Nate Repensky (6 G, 21 A)
Goaltending (Regular-Season Stats) Nicholas Lehr (25-8-1, 2.39 GAA, .914 SV%), Jason Pawloski (17-3-2, 2.52 GAA, .919 SV%) Aaron Nelson (24-7-6, 1.88 GAA, .931 SV%), Bryan Nies (11-7-3, 2.48 GAA, .910 SV%)

Though Austin easily won the Central Division in the regular season, this will be a battle of two teams that are on fire. Austin and Bismarck were tied for having the third-highest number of standings points in the second half of the regular season. In the last ten games including the playoffs, Austin is 7-1-2 while Bismarck is 8-0-2. Bismarck actually has not lost a game in regulation in 13 games.

This is also a particularly interesting matchup when looking at offense, defense, and special teams. In the regular season, Austin had the league’s best power play and second-best offense (as far as total goals scored). Bismarck, meanwhile, had the league’s second-best defense (as far as total goals allowed).

Will Austin’s high-powered offense and special teams win out, or will Bismarck’s strong defense and goaltending shine and lead the Bobcats to their fifth-straight division title? This should be one exciting series to watch.