by John Peterson
On the second to last weekend of the regular season, the red-hot Austin Bruins (36-11-11), who have won 18 of its last 21 games, can be called regular season Central Division Champions for the third straight year.
With a magic number of two points entering Saturday’s game against the Brookings Blizzard (19-29-9) at Riverside Arena, the Bruins won convincingly 6-2 to sew up the highly competitive division.
For the second straight night, Austin heavily out-chanced Brookings in the first period. The Bruins outshot the Blizzard 13-4 in the opening frame, but the teams skated scoreless into the first intermission. Brookings goalie Ryan Kubic (St. Andrews, MB) was strong in turning away the Austin attack, including a Nico Sturm (Augsburg, Germany) penalty shot, and Bruins rookie Evan Smith (Parker, CO) stopped all four shots.
The teams swapped five combined goals in the second period. Brookings started the scoring when Joe Nathe’s (Fergus Falls, MN) wrist shot saw its way into the net from the point through a screen. But a terrific backhanded pass from JC Maclean (Basking Ridge, NJ) set up Josh Wilkins (Cary, NC) for the equalizer. Wilkins was hooked up going to the net and dove to knock the puck through the five-hold of Kubic.
Trevor Boyd (Muskegon, MI) scored his team-leading 24th goal of the season to give Austin the lead when he fired a shot off Kubic’s shoulder from the corner. Then captain Brian Bachnak (Riverview, MI) tapped in a loose puck lying in the crease to make it 3-1. On a power play late in the period, the Blizzard closed the gap when their captain Beau Michaud (Cloquet, MN) ripped a shot past Smith from the slot. The Bruins led 3-2 after two.
In the third period, Wilkins and Maclean reversed roles for another highlight reel goal. Wilkins snuck a pass from beneath the goal line out to Maclean low in the slot, and Maclean snapped the one-timer into the top corner to give Austin a two-goal lead. Alex Pettersson (Ockero, Sweden) finished off a rebound a few minutes later to put the game out of reach, and Boyd scored on a late penalty shot (the Bruins’ second attempt of the night) for the sixth goal and his second of the game.
Smith stopped 14 shots for his fourth straight win, and Kubic made 31 stops in the loss.
The Bruins and Blizzard wrap up the regular season next weekend with a game at Riverside Arena Friday at 7:05pm and the finale in Brookings Saturday at 7:15pm. Both games can be seen on fasthockey.com and heard on 1480AM KAUS in Austin. Then the playoffs begin the first weekend in April. With the division locked up, the Bruins will host Aberdeen in Games 1 and 2 of the Central Division Semifinals in a best-of-five series that weekend.