Ready to Roar: Bruins are back in the NAHL Central Division finals for the first time since 2018

Published 3:11 pm Monday, May 1, 2023

The last time that Austin Bruins head coach Steve Howard was coaching in the NAHL Central Division finals, he was in his first year with the Bruins and was facing a red hot No. 4 seeded Minot team that swept the Bruins and went all the way to the Robertson Cup finals.

That series was played five years ago and this time around Howard is coaching a Bruins team that led the NAHL Central Division throughout the season and has the top seed in the NAHL Central Division as Austin prepares to play the St. Cloud Norsemen in a best-of-five series in the division finals.

“In my first year we lost all one goal games to Minot and two of them went to overtime. Minot went on that miracle run,” Howard said. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say, I was looking at our four playoff years, not counting the COVID year, which would’ve been five, and I only had one playoff series win under my belt before this year. To get that one (over Minot this year) was big and now we don’t want to stop.”

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The first and second games of the series against St. Cloud will be held in Riverside Arena on Friday and Saturday, with a start time of 7:05 p.m. for both contests. If necessary, a series deciding game five will be held in Riverside Arena at 5:05 p.m. on Sunday, May, 14.

The Norsemen, who played in the Robertson Cup last year, have a balanced scoring attack as four players surpassed 40 points on the season. Kade Peterson led the way with 25 goals and 25 assists. St. Cloud’s top goalie is Ethan Dahlmeir, who has a 91.6 save percentage while allowing 2.35 goals per game.

“We are going to be prepared for a well coached structured hockey team. Corey (Millen) has been around for a long time and their players play a structured game,” Howard said. “It’s going to be a bit of a chess match. It usually is against them.”

Millen, a Cloquet native, played for the Minnesota Gophers, the U.S. Olympic team, the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames. His NHL career went from 1989 to 1997. 

St. Cloud is coming off a sweep of Aberdeen and Austin is coming off a sweep over Minot. The Bruins were able to advance by taking advantage of power plays and slowing down Minot’s power plays over the past two weeks.

Howard is hoping that is a trend that continues.

“Every coach wants to get three wins and get a sweep, but it’s not scripted and it never is. (Minot) is a good team and our guys did a good job, especially on special teams,” Howard said. “Our power play got on a roll and that’s what it is. Special teams play is huge in the playoffs.”

This will be the third playoff series for the Bruins in the past two seasons and the team’s veterans will know what to expect as the lights get brighter and the crowds grow louder.

“There’s always nerves every game, but we’ve been trying to prepare guys for it,” Howard said. “Last year we didn’t have much playoff experience and now we’ve got quite a bit of it after bringing guys back from last year. Playoff experience is huge and it’s being able to make plays in the right situation. Big games call for big players.”

The Bruins have dropped the ticket prices to $5 per game this weekend to draw big support from the community.

“The fans have been great all year and we hope they come out and support us,” Howard said. “It’s going to be rocking in here on Friday and Saturday.”