It took nearly the entire 60-game regular season for the second-year Minot Minotauros to punch their first ticket to the North American Hockey League postseason, but the way in which they got there no longer matters.
What does matter is winning three games in a best-of-five series with NAHL Central Division champion Austin (Minn.) to keep Minot's season alive. The series begins at 7:05 tonight in Austin.
The Tauros enter the playoffs having lost eight of their last nine games, including two to the Bruins at Maysa Arena. After defeating Brookings (S.D.) on March 23 to clinch a playoff spot, Minot was outscored 10-2 in two losses to Bismarck to close out the regular season.
Tauros defenseman David Dalbec skates up the ice with the puck as Bismarck’s Adam Knochenmus gives chase during a game earlier this season.
"It's a new season," Tauros coach Marty Murray said. "Obviously, the playoffs are a different type of intensity. I'm sure they're going to have a packed house. I'm sure our guys will have their eyes open a little bit, but this is what it's all about. We worked hard all year to get into the playoffs and it's finally here. We have nothing to lose, we just have to play hard and play like we have all year."
Austin made its own history this season, winning its first division title in the team's three-year history and setting a franchise record with 42 wins.
"We have a couple guys that have been here for all three years," Austin coach Chris Tok said. "It was fantastic after three years to be able to put us in a position to win the division. It means a lot to the players and the community."
The Bruins had three of the league's top 10 scorers during the regular season, led by forward Brandon Wahlin with 69 points (20 goals, 49 assists), which was the second most in the NAHL. Forward A.J. Reid finished sixth in scoring with 65 points (25 g, 40 a) and forward C.J. Smith was 10th with 59 (30 g, 29 a). Austin averaged 3.72 goals per game.
"All three of those guys have really good hockey minds," Tok said. "They're just good hockey players. All three play on different lines. They have a good complement of players to help them."
Minot's offensive production sputtered at the end of the regular season as the Tauros were held to one goal or fewer in seven of their final 13 games. The Tauros still averaged 2.52 goals per contest, with forward Jake O'Borsky leading the team in scoring with 40 points (13 g, 27 a).
The two-week layoff couldn't have come at a better time for the Tauros, who hope to have goaltender Tyler Parks in the lineup. Parks suffered an upper-body injury against Brookings on March 22 and didn't dress for the final three games. Darren Medler filled Parks' roster spot for those games, but didn't see ice time.
"Our lineup was definitely broken," Tauros forward Tim Donohue said. "We had four or five guys that had bumps and bruises and serious injuries. The extra week helped us and our lineup is a lot stronger than it was in the last couple weeks."
Parks appeared in 39 regular-season games, totaling more than 2,200 minutes of ice time. He led the team in wins (18), goals against average (2.79), saves (1,144) and save percentage (.917). Ryan Ruck has split time with Parks in net, playing in 25 games and sporting an 8-11-1 record. Murray said Parks will be ready to play tonight.
Regardless of who is in net for game one, the Tauros' success centers on discipline and staying out of the penalty box. Austin tallied an NAHL-best 70 power-play goals during the regular season, converting on more then 25 percent of its opportunities. The Tauros averaging 21.4 penalty minutes per game.
"They've had the best power play in the league the whole season," Murray said. "Having discipline both in our system and taking penalties, we have to keep a real close eye on that and not cross the line where we're in the penalty box all night."
The teams split their 10 meetings during the regular season, with seven games decided by a goal. The Tauros won the first four matchups, but the Bruins were victorious in five of the final six games.
"We had a good season, but that doesn't really mean anything," Tok said. "Anybody that gets into the playoffs has a chance to win. We definitely believe we can win."