Last year at this time, the Minot Minotauros were just looking forward to the end of the season. Playoffs were well out of the picture for the Tauros in their inaugural campaign.
This season, the Tauros are 21-16-3 (45 points) through 40 games and sit just two points behind Bismarck for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Right behind the Tauros in the standings is Brookings (S.D.) with 42 points. With 20 games left in the regular season and 18 points clear of Coulee Region (Wis.) for the final spot out of the NAHL Central Division, the postseason is a near lock.
"At the start of the year the goal was to make the playoffs," Tauros coach Marty Murray said. "We're sitting in a decent position, but we're never satisfied. We're looking to improve every day. We want to finish as high as we can."
Tauros forward Collin Abitz and Bismarck’s Daniel Kovar await the drop of the puck during a game in December at Maysa Arena.
Austin (Minn.) has a firm grip on the regular season division crown, leading Bismarck by 14 points. But the second seed is up for grabs between Bismarck, Minot and Brookings.
"Anytime you can get home-ice advantage it's an advantage," Murray said. "We've been playing well at home as of late."
The Tauros are 11-6-2 at Maysa Arena this season.
Minot has 11 games remaining against Bismarck and Brookings, five of which are at home. Minot sports a 10-6 record against the two. The Tauros close out the regular season with home-and-home series with Brookings and Bismarck, which could determine which one of the three teams gets the division's No. 2 seed.
The Tauros have just four combined games remaining against Aberdeen (S.D.) and Coulee Region, and even though Minot has had continued success against the two opponents this season, Murray said they won't be overlooking either of them.
"Those teams are still good teams," Murray said. "This past weekend, Aberdeen took us right to the end. Both games were 4-3 and the last one went to a shootout. We're foolish if we underestimate them."
Minot continues its push toward the postseason when it hosts Austin at 8:05 p.m. on Friday at Maysa Arena.
Parity sweeping across ACHA
Arizona State has laid claim to the No. 1 ranking in the last eight American College Hockey Association Men's Division I polls, but that could change when the next Top 25 is released this week.
The Sun Devils opened the regular season with 18 straight wins but have dropped five of their last 13 games, including two straight last weekend. The Sun Devils' most recent loss came against 17th-ranked Central Oklahoma (14-12) at home.
It could have been much worse for ASU had it not come out on the winning end of three consecutive overtime games, two of which were decided in a shootout.
But the Sun Devils aren't the only top five team being bitten by the parity bug. Second-ranked Robert Morris University (Ill.) was swept by Ohio University over the weekend. RMU entered its series with the Bobcats with just two losses.
"Now, more than ever, it's wide open," MSU coach Wade Regier said. "Inside the top 10 anybody can beat anybody. This weekend that was more evident than ever."
Even Minot State University had its hands full last week, having to rally late in the third period against NJCAA Williston State College before completing the comeback victory in overtime.
Regier said one reason for the parity is the stability on the coaching staff. In the ACHA, when a coach strings together a few good seasons, he often moves to the NCAA Division III level. But over the last three seasons more and more coaches have elected to stay with their respective ACHA teams. Regier, along with coaches at Arizona State, Robert Morris, Ohio and Central Oklahoma have been with their teams for last three-plus seasons.
"What's happening is we've been able to have stability at coaching, which allows them to bring in their recruits," Regier said. "Plus, the level of play has increased immensely."
It appears it's anyone's guess as to which team will emerge as the favorite to win the national tournament come March. In past years, the No. 1 seed in the tournament has proved meaningless as a No. 3 seed (Delaware) won it all last season and a No. 2 seed (Davenport) took the crown in 2011.