The NAHL Division Finals pairings have been set following a third week of Semi-Finals matchups. Four Semi-Finals series were settled in sweeps, while two went the full five games before being decided.
NAHL North Division
Soo vs. Port Huron
After taking a two games to none lead during week two of play, the Soo Eagles went into Port Huron looking to close out the series. The Eagles Jared VanWormer scored the only goal of the first period at 16:08 to send the visitors to the locker room just 40 minutes removed from advancing to the finals. In the second Mike Sabatini added to the lead early. It was 7:49 into the third before Port Huron was able to put the puck past Tyler Marble off the stick of Payden Mielke. It took Eric Rivard just over one minute to reestablish the Soo lead and Sabatini added an insurance tally at 10:16. Marble was once again solid in net for the Soo turning aside 33 of 34 shots on goal. Max Milosekwas saddled with his second loss of the series allowing all four goals on 26 shots. The Eagles outscored the Fighting Falcons 12-4 in the three game set.
Jamestown vs. Kalamazoo
As with the other North Division semi-finals, Jamestown took a two game lead into Kalamazoo with a chance to close out the series. Jamestown jumped out to a lead approaching the mid point of the first on a goal by Ryan Doucet. Doucet’s goal was the only scoring of the game until over 55 minutes had expired. Kalamazoo finally got on the board at 15:33 of the third when Mac McDonnell scored, but the Ironmen retook the lead just nine seconds later on a Evan Ritt goal and held it the rest of the way to advance to face the Eagles. Both goalies played well on the night, but Joe Ballmer was just a tad better allowing one goal on 30 shots faced. Marcus Due-Bojeon the other hand saw 37 shots and turned aside 35. Kalamazoo was held to a single goal in each of the games as Jamestown outscored them 12-3.
Soo vs. Jamestown
The Eagles and Ironmen faced off a total of eight times during the regular season with Soo taking 6 of the eight contests. Eric Rivard (4G-6A) and Jared VanWormer (4G-6A) led the Eagles in scoring against Jamestown. All but one member of the Soo roster that played in more than five games had a plus rating against the Ironmen. Tyler Marble picked up all but one decision against the Ironmen going 6-1-0 with a 2.10GAA and .945SV%. The Eagles power play converted seven of 34 opportunities.
For the Ironmen it was Luc Gerdes (6G- 3A) who drove the offense against Soo. Dylan Zink (3G-1A) was the only other Jamestown player with more than two goals in the season series. Jamestown had four goalies log minutes against the Eagles with Tim Shaughnessy, now departed, playing the majority of the time. Joe Ballmer who was in net for all three of the semi-finals victories against Kalamazoo was 1-1-0 against the Soo with a 3.04GAA and .936SV%. The Ironmen power play finished the head-to-head play at 10.8% on 4 goals in 37 opportunities. Look for the Soo Eagles to continue their march to the Robertson Cup Tournament in their first season in the league. I see the Eagles closing out the series three games to one. Games one and two will be played in Soo starting April 26thand 27 before shifting to Jamestown for game three and four if necessary.
NAHL Central Division
Austin vs. Minot
After Minot scored the overtime victory in game two to knot the series at a game apiece, Austin returned the favor snatching an overtime victory on the Minatauros home ice in game three. Minot scored first just 1:28 into the game from Lucas Oliver. Oliver’s goal was followed by John Simonson’s goal at 4:00 to keep Austin in the game. Austin took the lead at 3:49 in the second on an AJ Reid tally and looked as though they would go to the second intermission with the lead. With just 27 second left in the second period Minot’s Wesley Iverson scored to pull the Minatauros even. The third period ended with the score deadlocked at two a side setting up overtime. At 7:02 of the extra period Cody Dixon picked up the game winner for Austin. Nicholas Lehr grabbed the victory facing 33 shots while allowing a single goal. Tyler Parksalso played well logging 34 saves on 37 shots.
Bismarck vs. Brookings
The Bobcats used a 6-0 shutout victory in game three to sweep the Brookings Blizzard from the playoffs. The first three Bismarck goals all came on the power play. Matt Pohlkamp scored at just 1:59 into the first period followed by Shane Omdahl and Stanislav Dzakhov both in the second period. Cory Chapman had two third period markers for the Bobcats sandwiched around a Bob Kinne tally. Aaron Nelson picked up the win facing 16 shots before giving way to Bryan Nies with just over 12 minutes to play. Nies saw 9 shot in his short stint. Drew Weigmangave up all six Bismarck goals for the loss facing 28 shots.
Austin vs. Bismarck
The Bruins and Bobcats saw each other ten times in what was a fairly close series. Austin came away with a 5-3-2 record with four of the 10 games going beyond regulation and three decided in a shootout. The teams split the four extra time games. Austin had three players log double digits in points against Bismarck. CJ Smith (6G-6A) showed the way with John Simonson (4G-7A) and Jay Dickman (2G-8A) being the others. Despite having a winning record against Bismarck the Bruins were outscored by the Bobcats 39-37 in the season series. Nicholas Lehr saw most of the time in net for Austin, but Jason Pawloski saw action in four games. The two finished with a 3.90GAA and a .878SV% combined. Austin made the most of their special teams play racking up a 27.3% power play on 15 goals in 55 opportunities and added two shorthanded goals.
Bismarck also had three players score double digits in the season series. Joe Giordano (3G-9A), Adam Knochenmus (2G-10A) and Patrick Moore (4G-7A), there were also two players who found the back of the net often against Austin. Shane Omdahl (6G-3A) and Matt Pohlkamp (5G-2A) both scored at least five goals against Austin. Aaron Nelson was credited with all the Bismarck wins in the series to go with one overtime loss while Bryan Nies was hobbled with 4 of the five losses. Together the two combined for a 3.70GAA and a .872SV%. I look for this to be a tight series that Bismarck may push to five games, but Austin should punch their ticket to the Robertson Cup Tourney in Frisco, TX. Austin will host the first two games of the Finals on April 26th and 27th.
NAHL South Division
Amarillo vs. Texas
The Bulls dominated the regular season with an impressive 10-1-1 record over the Tornado. Amarillo more than doubled up Texas scoring 49 goals to the Tornado’s 22. With the scoring discrepancy, the Bulls had six players with a +11 or higher +/- rating in the head-to-head matchup. TJ Sarcona (6G-8A) and Ryan Cole (6G-4A) led in goals scored. They were joined by Gage Christianson (3G-10A) and Mike Davis (4G-7A) as double digit scorers. Paul Berrafato who led the league in wins was in net for 10 of the 12 games posting a 9-0-1 record on 1.52GAA and a .940SV%. The one weakness shown by Amarillo was the power play where they were just five of 52 for a 9.6% efficiency.
Texas failed to have a single player with a positive +/- rating against Amarillo this season. Justin Greenberg (4G-5A) and Brandon Hawkins (2G-7A) were the leading scorers. Drew Mayer (2G-3A) played only five games against the Bulls due to injuries, but was nearly a point a game in the process. Hunter Leisner was responsible for all 12 decisions against Amarillo finishing with a 3.96GAA and a .889SV%.
Amarillo took four games to get past Corpus Christi in round one. Paul Berrafato who set the standard for the league in goal during the regular season displayed that he was human. Berrafato led the league in wins with 33, a 1.66GAA and fifth with a .928SV%. However, against the Icerays his numbers slipped by more than a point per game to 2.77GAA and a .898SV%. Texas on the other hand turned things around against another them that had dominated their regular season meetings.
The Tornado allowed only a single goal in each of their three games against Topeka. Hunter Leisner brought back memories of the goalie Texas rode to the Robertson Cup Title last season as he finished the Topeka series with a 1.00GAA and .968SV%. This may be a homer call, but I am going to go out on a limb and project the defending National Champion Tornado winning the series on Amarilloice in five games. Head Coach Tony Curtale is the winningest coach in NAHL history and has seven Robertson Cup National Championships on his resume. He will have the Tornado ready for the big stage once again. If the Tornado team that swept Topeka from the first round is the team that shows up against Amarillo, the Bulls are in for a rough road. The series will get underway in Amarillo on April 25th and 26th.
NAHL West Division
Both of the West Division semi-finals pairing went the full five games despite the fact that on paper the Wenatchee vs. Fresno series should have been a cake-walk for the Wild.
Wenatchee vs. Fresno
The Wenatchee Wild finished the season 41 points ahead of Fresno, but had their hand full with a spirited Fresno team as they came out of their first two games of the series with a split. With the series moving to Fresno, the Monsters took game three in overtime to put the Wild in a must win situation. Wenatchee scored first in game three as Evan Schmidbauer potted a first period goal at the 12:33 mark. Dan Sherer pulled Fresno even with the only goal of the second period and from there until 7:52 of the overtime period it was a defensive struggle. Matt Salituro finally broke through for Fresno to grab the two games to one lead. Tomas Sholl stopped 37 of 38 shots for the win while Robert Nichols took the tough luck loss with 26 saves.
Game four was a special teams affair with only one of the six goals scored coming at even strength. Once again the Wild were the first on the board with Jacob Barber goal at just over five minutes into the game. Fresno’s Gordon Wells tied things up three minutes later and the teams went to the room deadlocked at one. The second period saw the games only even strength goal from Chris Kerr and Wenatchee went into the third with a one goal lead. Barber connected again at just over five minutes of the third to give Wenatchee a bit of a cushion, but Karl Andersen answered just over two minutes later to put Fresno within striking distance. Max McHugh scored an empty netter with just three seconds left for the final 4-2 score. Nichols picked up the hard earned win turning aside 23 shots. Sholl took the loss with 31 saves.
With the season on the line for both teams the series moved back to Wenatchee for a decisive game five. Just like in game four the first period ended tied at one. Jacob Barber scored for the Wild and Gordon Wells had the Monsters tally. Barber had the only goal of the second period to put Wenatchee only 20 minutes away from the series win. Nicholas Kucheraconnected on a power play goal at 16:50 of the third to give the Wild an insurance goal and Barber’s empty netter gave him the hat trick and sent the Wild on to the division finals. Nichols faced only 18 shots on goal in the win while Sholl once again put up a valiant effort for Fresno making 34 saves on the night.
Fairbanks vs. KenaiRiver
Prior to this series, the Kenai River Brown Bears had never won a playoff game and yet they came out of one of the toughest venues in the league with a split of the first two games of the series. Back on home ice Kenai River took a two games to one lead with a 2-1 victory in game three. Neither team was able to find the back of the net until Jayson Angus scored for Fairbanks at 1:37 of the second period. The Icedogs held their one goal lead until Vincent Stefan came through for the Brown Bear with under seven minutes to go in regulation. Jacob Davidson got the game winner for Kenai River at 18:14. Marcus Zelzer backstopped the Brown Bears for the win with 23 saves. Steve Perry made 33 saves in a losing effort.
Game four started with the Icedogs jumping out to a three goal first period lead on tallies by Zack Rall, Jayson Angus and Max Birkinbine. Rall’s goal came with Fairbanks on the power play. Kenai River began to claw their way back into the game in the second period as they sandwiched Zac Lazzaro and Brad Duwe goals around a Fairbanks goal from Lawrence Cornellier. Two early third period power play goals from Mikhail Bushinski and Duwe completed the Brown Bears comeback, and then at 12:12 Lazzaro gave Kenai River their first lead of the game. However, Taylor Munson scored with under two minutes to play to send the game to overtime. Garret Clemment got the overtime game winner for Fairbanks just over four minutes into the extra period. Perry and Zelzer each had a tough night in net. Perry made 31 saves on 36 shots faced for the win while Zelzer stopped 25 of 31 in the loss.
Game five was back at the Big Dipper in Fairbanks and saw another game decided by a single goal. Kenai River looked as though they may finally have their first playoff series win as they picked up goals from Albin Karlsson and Zack Zulkanycz in the first and second periods. With only one period standing between them and the golf course, the Icedogs came out in the third and took control. Devin Loe got things started at 8:53 followed by a Colton Wolter goal at 11:21. Jayson Angusnetted the game winner with just over a minute to go. Again it was Perry and Zelzer in net with Perry getting the win on 29 saves. Zelzer made 33 saves on the night in a losing cause.
Wenatchee vs. Fairbanks
These two teams are no strangers as they faced each other 12 times during the regular season. Fairbanks won seven of the 12 contests outscoring Wenatchee 36-31 in the process. Three of the games were decided in a shootout with the Wild claiming two of those games. The Wild came with a very balanced attack against Fairbanks with six players scoring six or more points in the season series. Wenatchee was led by Jono Davis (6G-3A) and Noah Nelson (3G-6A). Jacob Barber (4G-4A) and Joshua Hartley (4G-2A) each contributed four goals. The Wild went 8 of 58 on the power play for 13.8% with a short handed goal against the Icedogs. Robert Nichols was in net for the majority of the season against Fairbanks logging a 4-4-1 record with a 2.66GAA and .896SV%. Evan McCarthy who is no longer with the team split the other two decisions.
For Fairbanks Jacob Hetz (6G-4A) was the offensive catalyst. He was joined by Devin Loe (5G-3A), Garret Clemment (4G-6A) and Kyle Lee (4G-5A) at the top of the scoring sheet. Between the pipes back up goaltender Kevin Aldridge, who has yet to see any ice time in the playoffs, had the better record against Wenatchee. Aldridge put up a 3-1-0 record with a 2.91GAA and a .910SV%. Starter Steve Perry was 4-3-1 with a 2.12GAA and .924SV%. The Icedogs power play finished at 12.0% scoring six goals on 50 opportunities. Fairbanks also managed three short handed goals in the series.
Wenatchee is averaging over 3300 in attendance in their three playoff games this season while Fairbanks averaged 2240, so each team will have heavy support on their home ice. That support factored into the regular season series as both took care of business at home. The Wild were 4-1-1 on home ice while the Icedogs were 5-1-0. Fairbanks finished the season fairly strong going 6-3-1 to end the regular season and were 3-2-0 against a game Kenai River team in the first round. Wenatchee on the other hand closed out the season on a bit of a slide going 3-7-0 then struggling to put away a Fresno Monsters squad that finished 22nd out of the 24 team league. I look for the Icedogs to pull this out in four games stealing one of the first two on the road in Wenatchee. The series will start in Wenatchee on April 26th and 27th.