Post Bulletin – Jason Feldman Apr 22, 2018
CLOQUET — For the sixth time in the Austin Bruins’ eight seasons as a franchise, they are headed to the North American Hockey League Central Division Finals.
The Bruins locked up their spot in the division
championship series with a convincing 5-3 victory against the Minnesota Wilderness on Saturday, giving Austin a 3-1 victory in a best-of-five first-round series.
Austin has failed to advance to the division finals in only 2011 and 2017.
The team has excelled this season under first-year head coach Steve Howard, first-year associate head coach Al Rooney and veteran assistant Keenan Kelly.
The Bruins went winless in their first six games of the regular season, but rallied to finish with a 33-19-8 regular-season record. They outscored the Wilderness 12-7 in their first-round series, the only Austin loss a 3-2 setback on Friday in which it outshot Minnesota 40-25.
Austin will meet either Aberdeen or Minot in the division championship series. That series is tied 2-2 after Minot shut out the Wings 3-0 on Saturday in Minot. Game 5 is tonight at Aberdeen. If the Wings win, the division finals will start on their home ice. If Minot defeats Aberdeen in their series, the Bruins would have home-ice advantage for the best-of-5 division finals series.
Saturday, the Bruins fell behind early, as Nathan Horn scored four minutes into the game for a 1-0 Wilderness lead.
But the Bruins turned the momentum late in the opening period, as Evan Cholak scored with 3:54 to go in the period and Dante Sheriff put Austin ahead for good with just 27 seconds remaining.
Austin’s Travis Kothenbeutel and Minnesota’s C.J. Regula traded goals in the second period, leaving Austin with a 3-2 lead.
The Bruins sealed it early in the third, as Dante Zapata scored 32 seconds in, and Valdemar Ahlberg added another insurance goal 5:45 into the period. Alex Spencer capped the scoring with an extra-attacker goal for Minnesota with 2:01 remaining.
Zapata, Sheriff, Kothenbeutel and Jed Pietila had one assist each for Austin. Goalie Alex Schilling earned the win by stopping 20 of the 23 shots he faced.
Games 1 and 2 of the division finals will be this Friday and Saturday, either at Aberdeen or Austin.