By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
May 12, 2016
The final weekend of the 2015-16 North American Hockey League (NAHL) season is here, and everything comes down to a weekend in Edina, Minn. at the Braemar Ice Arena to decide who will take home the Robertson Cup, named after NAHL great Chuck Robertson, who led his Paddock Pools dquad to seven-straight championships from 1976-83. Four teams are set for the semi-finals starting this afternoon, and the best of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) will battle it out for the ultimate crown. The hardest question of the entire weekend is this: who will win?
Since each team came out of their respective division playoffs, the field of four is reset based on regular season record to begin the best-of-three semi-final this afternoon. The two teams coming out of that will play one final game to determine the Robertson Cup Champion in a winner-take-all contest. All four teams won their regular season division titles.
(1) FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: 49-8-3 record (1st Midwest Division)
Playoff Appearances: 10 (2007-16); Division Titles: 6 (2009, 2011-12, 2014-16)
President's Trophies: 2 (2014, 2016)
Finals Appearances: 3 (2010-11, 2014); Robertson Cup Championships: 2 (2011, 2014)
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs continue to be perennial powerhouses in the NAHL and are always favored to enter the final weekend of the season, and this year was no exception. Historically, the Ice Dogs have entered the Robertson Cup Playoffs in all 10 seasons as members of the league dating back to the 2006-07 season in the South Division while claiming their respetive division in 60 percent of their NAHL seasons (four in West; two in Midwest) and making the Robertson Cup Semi-finals five times. They're trying to make it three championships in six seasons, which would be the best run of dominance since the Jon Cooper-led St. Louis Bandits won three-straight from 2007-09 (preceded by three-straight from the Texas Tornado from 2004-06), and they are, once again, the favorites to take the title.
The Ice Dogs opened the season with an undefeated September record of 8-0-0 record through the NAHL Showcase and battled with the Wichita Falls Wildcats for the top spot in the NAHL through the first half of the season, but the strength and longevity of the Ice Dogs paved the way for another division crown and playoff appearance. They had help from all facets of their game this season but were led by the lethal combination of NAHL MVP Todd Burgess and 1st Team All-Midwest forward Ryner Gorowski, who combined for 178 points through 119 combined games. Their top-four point scorers each had 60+ points, which ranks them in the top-six of the entire NAHL with only Odessa's Hampus Sjodahl and Derek Brown getting in the way of being the top-four of the entire league. Many make the case for a 16-game schedule against Kenai River for inflated numbers, but what about the other 46 games played? They still own the most goals, fewest goals allowed, and highest goal differential in the NAHL, and all of that is helped by two other players on the back end: 1st Team All-Midwest defenseman Jakob Stridsberg (39 points), and goaltender Gavin Nieto, who finished the year with a 33-5-1 record, a 1.71 goal-against average (1st NAHL), and a .929 save percentage (T-1st NAHL). Not only that, they owned the best special teams, placing first in power play (24.09%) and penalty kill (88.70%).
The Ice Dogs have had a bumpy road to get to the Robertson Cup Semifinals. After dropping Game 1 against the Coulee Region Chill in the Midwest Semi-finals 6-1, they won three-straight to move on and put the defending Robertson Cup Champions, the Minnesota Wilderness, on the brink of elimination with two-straight wins at home. However, after the Wilderness came back to force a Game 5, the Ice Dogs finished off the former champions to claim the top spot in the Robertson Cup Semi-finals. As almost expected, Burgess shares the lead in points this postseason at 13 (five goals, eight assists), and Nieto leads all goalies with a minimum of four starts in goals-against average (1.70) and sits tied for fourth in save percentage (.928). While special teams haven't been their strength, it's their scoring and depth across the board that make them the favorite to win the title again. The Ice Dogs are 1-1 against the Bismarck Bobcats in the playoffs including a 3-0 loss in the 2010 Robertson Cup Final and went 2-2 against the Aston Rebels this seaosn.
(2) WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: 44-11-5 record (1st South Division)
Playoff Appearances: 8 (2005-06, 2008-09, 2011, 2014-16); Division Titles: 1 (2016)
Finals Appearances: 0; Robertson Cup Championships: 0
This is a historic year for the Wichita Falls Wildcats on many fronts. They claimed their first regular season and playoff South Division titles, claimed their second playoff series win, made the Robertson Cup Semi-finals for the first time, and came second in the entire NAHL at the end of the season. Not only that, but this is the first postseason where they've had home ice advantage in any round since their first NAHL year in 2004-05. Including their one year as the Wichita Falls Rustlers in the America West Hockey League (AWHL) during 2002-03 and one year as the same name in the NAHL during 2003-04, they have two South Division titles including this season. The addition of 2016 NAHL Coach of the Year Jon LaFontaine is paying off dividends for the Wildcats, and this could be the beginning of the rise of the Wildcats in both the South Division and the league.
The Wildcats run a wide-open style of hockey unconventional for the traditional South Division since the inception of the former CHL franchises in 2010-11, and that has worked despite being one of the youngest teams in the NAHL. Their average age rests at 18.63 years, but that has not been a factor despite the trend for higher ages throughout the league. They, like the Ice Dogs, started the season on an impressive run, going 12-1-2 through their first two months and led the NAHL for much of the early stages. What makes them different from Fairbanks is the lack of "star power" they own on the team, meaning they have a lot of depth with consistent (and high-end) production throughout their lineup. While players like NAHL Rookie of the Year Adam Goodsir and 60-point scorer (one of just seven in the league) Austin Albrecht jump off the page, the Wildcats have 10 players with 30 points or more, which is the highest in the NAHL–as a reference, three teams had eight (Aston, Minot, New Jersey) and two had seven (Bismarck & Topeka) with Fairbanks only holding six. Their flashy numbers are supported by a top-four power play (22.09%) and top-three penalty kill (86.00%) as well as South Division Goaltender of the Year Justin Kapelmaster, who finished with a 33-8-3 record, a 2.06 goals-against average (4th NAHL), and a .924 save percentage (6th NAHL).
The Wildcats are one of two teams to sweep through their divisional rounds, taking down the Odessa Jackalopes by a combined 17-3 scoreline and the Topeka RoadRunners in three-straight though with no more than two goals separating them in each game including a 2-1 double-overtime win to seal their ticket to the Robertson Cup Semi-finals. Their depth is showing again with the only team having two or more with 10+ points (Austin Beaulieu, 12; Albrecht, 10) and five players in the top-20 in scoring through the postseason (most). Kapelmaster also leads the league in save percentage (.945) through six games played. They're breaking new ground in the playoffs, so their task against any of the three other teams has no historical background to focus on.
(3) BISMARCK BOBCATS: 37-19-4 record (1st Central Division)
Playoff Appearances: 10 (2005-06, 2009-16); Division Titles: 4 (2009-10, 2012, 2016)
Finals Appearances: 1 (2010); Robertson Cup Championships: 1 (2010)
The Bismarck Bobcats are the other team with a track record for success getting into the Robertson Cup Playoffs, and despite their season almost keeping them away from their fourth division crown, they also made their 10th trip to the postseason and for the eighth-straight season dating back to 2009. This is the fifth time the Bobcats are in the Robertson Cup Semi-finals (including the Round Robin years) with their first coming in 2005 while making the consolation game. However, if the Bobcats do make the Robertson Cup Final, they're perfect in their only trip back in 2010. Prior to the AWHL and NAHL merger in 2004, the Bobcats had back-to-back Borne Cup titles and have brought that continued success and pressure into the NAHL ever since.
The Central Division came down to a battle of two North Dakota rivals: Bismarck and the Minot Minotauros. While the Bobcats held on to first place for a lot of the season, their battle with Minot (as well as the Austin Bruins for a portion of the season) lasted until the final weekend, when the Bobcats sealed their two-point cushion and their fourth regular season title (first since 2012). Though scoring always helps sitting just inside the top-10 among the 22 NAHL teams, the biggest strength came on the back end. NAHL Goaltender of the Year Hunter Shepard is the largest reason why the Bobcats finished where they did. He played 50 games this season with a 1.90 goals-against average (2nd NAHL), a .926 save percentage (4th NAHL), and eight shutouts (1st NAHL). His play in net helped Bismarck own the second-fewest goals against in the NAHL (133 goals), only sitting behind Fairbanks. Put it this way: since January 15 (28 games), the Bobcats only conceded four goals or more twice. Shepard played in 23 of those games while only allowing that once. The cast doesn't end there with three other players earning All-Central Division honors: forward Aaron Herdt (52 points), forward Alex Strand (49 points), and defenseman Patrik Demel (32 points). Don't be fooled, their entire strength isn't on the back end, but that will be working in full force if the Bobcats claim their second Roberston Cup, especially considering the scoring potential of their opponents.
Bismarck ran into a little trouble getting to the Robertson Cup Semifinals. Though claiming a 3-1 series win over the Brookings Blizzard in the opening round, the Austin Bruins proved to be quite the thorn in a home team's series. After taking a 2-0 series lead at home, the Bruins forced a Game 5 with two-straight wins of their own at home only to be taken down 4-0 in the final game from the V.F.W. Sports Center. But, once again, low-scoring games were key for the Bobcats. Their only game without allowing three-plus goals was Game 3 of the Central Division Finals, coughing up seven during the shutout loss to give the Bruins momentum. They still remain consistent from their season trends in keeping goals down, but more firepower could be trouble in a short three-game series and a one-game championship if the Bobcats start to falter defensively. Their biggest key: keep capitalizing on the power play. They're second in conversion percentage (8-for-34, 23.53%), but only behind their semi-final opponent: Wichita Falls. If they make the final, they could have a 2010 rematch with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who they defeated to take the title.
(4) ASTON REBELS: 37-19-4 record (1st Central Division)
Playoff Appearances: 1 (2016); Division Titles: 1 (2016)
Finals Appearances: 0; Robertson Cup Championships: 0
The Aston Rebels are setting the pace for the brand new franchise in the East Division by not only claiming the first ever East Division Title but also being the first East Division team to represent in the Robertson Cup Semi-finals. The Rebels joined the newly-created division after spending just two seasons as the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees in the South Division. However, their roots stem from a lot of success with the franchise being the former Wenatchee Wild from the 2008-09 season to their departure after the 2012-13 season, so if that is any indication of what could be, they'll be a force in the East Division for a long time to come considering the Wenatchee/Rio Grande Valley franchise has never missed the postseason in eight seasons. Helping their cause was the same infrastructure in Rio Grande Valley, moving Head Coach Joe Coombs with the team to continue their South Division brand in their new home.
The East Division set up an interesting scenario for the four teams involved: all four teams made the playoffs. So, making the postseason was never a question but just a matter of where they would place in the East Division. The title came down to a three-team race in the final month and just two teams heading to the final weekend, and, much like Bismarck, the Rebels edged out their direct opponent, the also newly-moved New Jersey Titans, by just two points. However, there isn't quite a noted identity like there is for the other three teams in the "Final Four," which, technically speaking, is their identity. Much like a Joe Coombs team, every player contributes and has his own role, and though huge stars may not emerge the team will always perform well and tough. The biggest "star" came from their blue line in 1st Team All-NAHL defenseman Kristofers Bindulis, who finished the season second in the NAHL among defenseman in points (46), just four shy of Lone Star's Cameron Clarke. He was a positive impact the entire season with a +13 rating and one of eight defenseman in the league with double-digit goals. Some familiar names remain throughout the lineup including All-East Division forward Ryan Cusin, who finished the season with 55 points and tied for the team lead at the end of the year with Michael Merulla, Forward Dean Balsamo, who played with the Killer Bees, was one of three players with 50+ points on the season, and former Odessa forward Eric Carreras topped out with 32 points on the season despite only grabbing eight in 18 games with the Rebels.
The Rebels were the second team to sweep through the divisional rounds to earn a spot at the table. The theme was the same in both their rounds against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights and Johnstown Tomahawks: two close games followed by a blowout. Those blowouts came at 6-1 and 9-2 scorelines (both on the road) to claim the series. Points could look inflated because of those wins, however if the Rebels have that much firepower and can send it out in one game, they could move from underdog to favorite in one 60-minute section. Cusin and Balsamo lead the team in points through six games with nine and eight, respectively. Goaltending throughout the season has kept the Rebels close enough to win many games, and even though they don't have a "headliner" to focus on, consistency is all that matters to keep the team in the hunt, and they've had that all season. They do have the best penalty kill percentage (89.47%) of all the teams remaining, but one glaring number on the other side could be trouble. They're just 1-for-22 on the power play, the lowest of any team to convert. Only one team did not score on the man-advantage: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, who played Aston in the first round.
MY PICK: Fairbanks Ice Dogs
There's a reason why they won the regular season with 101 points. They are the most complete team in the NAHL at this point, and despite not sweeping through the divisional rounds, those close games and forced pressure helps a team that only lost 11 times remember the sting of faltering and almost letting it slip away. Between a high-powered offense and stalwart goaltender, it's going to take a lot to force the Fairbanks Ice Dogs away from their third Robertson Cup.
ICERAYS FAN PICK: Wichita Falls Wildcats, 47% of the vote (courtesy of Twitter fan poll)
The Robertson Cup Weekend kicks off today with Fairbanks and Aston followed by Wichita Falls and Bismarck. All seven potential games are live on FASTHockey.com with box scores available on NAHL.com. Below is the schedule of the weekend's events.
(1) Fairbanks Ice Dogs vs. (4) Aston Rebels:
Game 1: Thursday, May 12 – 4:30 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, May 13 – 4:30 p.m.
*Game 3: Saturday, May 14 – 3:00 p.m. (if necessary)
(2) Wichita Falls Wildcats vs. (3) Bismarck Bobcats:
Game 1: Thursday, May 12 – 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, May 13 – 7:30 p.m.
*Game 3: Saturday, May 14 – 6:00 p.m. (if necessary)
Robertson Cup Final: Sunday, May 15 – 1:00 p.m.
Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations with the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter (@CollinDSchuck).