Preview: Bruins are thinking big

Published 5:05 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2012

CJ Smith celebrates scoring a goal in practice at Riverside Arena Wednesday. The Bruins open will open their season in Blaine, Minn. Sept. 12. -- Rocky Hulne/

As the Austin Bruins enter their third season as a franchise, their hopes are higher than ever.

Last season the Bruins went 40-22-6 overall and made it to the NAHL Central Division finals before falling to Bismarck, N.D. in four games. Now the Bruins, who return 13 players from that team, are hoping for a chance to get back to the Conference Finals — and win it.

“We’re here to win a championship and that’s why were working so hard,” said returning forward Brandon Wahlin, who had 40 points last season. “We got so close last year and we could almost taste it. We’re not going to be denied this year.”

Bruins head coach Chris Tok speaks to his team.

Email newsletter signup

Austin head coach Chris Tok said the first three days of practice have pushed the players to their limit, but they’ve continued to work hard. He also noted that the team is better off at this point than where it was last year at this time.

“You never know until you play somebody, but we believe we’re better now than we were at the beginning of last year,” Tok said. “Were further along as a staff and we think our players are further along.”

Austin will look for leadership from returnees AJ Reid, who had 29 points last season, John Simonson, who had 38 points last season, and CJ Smith, who had 27 points last season.

The Bruins will also get a boost from Riley Colvard, a 6-3, 202-pound forward from Lino Lakes, who had six points in 12 games before breaking his neck in a scrimmage against a team from Norway last season.

After undergoing surgery and taking a lot of time to recover, Colvard spent the second half of last season helping out the coaches and chipping in.

“I’ve got to thank coach Tok for letting me come back,” Colvard said. “I did whatever I could to help.”

Colvard was cleared for contact in April and he’s been working his way back to playing shape ever since. He’s excited to finally get on the ice when the season opens Sept. 12 against the Amarillo Bulls in Blaine.

Viitala Easton handles the puck during a drill at Austin Bruins' practice in Riverside Arena Wednesday.

“There’s still a little soreness in my neck, but other than that it feels good and I’m ready to go,” Colvard said. “I’m a little out of shape right now and these past three days have been pretty tough. I’ve been sore and tired, but hopefully by the time the games come, I’ll be 100 percent and ready to go.”

On the defensive side of the puck, the Bruins will look to newcomer Josh Bretner to help protect starting goalie Nicholas Lehr. Lehr, who is from Roseville, Minn., was 9-8-1 overall last year with a 91.8 save percentage.

“I feel like I’ve definitely improved and I’ve matured a lot,” Lehr said. “I understand the league and I’m excited for this year. We made it to the finals last year and this year we want to take it.”

The Bruins will host their first home game against Coulee Region Sept. 29 at 7:05 p.m. in Riverside Arena.

The Central Division will have six teams in it this season as Coulee Region was added to go along with Aberdeen, S.D., Austin, Bismarck, Brookings, S.D. and Minot, N.D.