‘Crunch time’ for Tauros against Austin

The North American Hockey League playoffs don’t start for another month, but for the Minot Minotauros, their postseason has begun.

The Tauros (20-29-3) enter this weekend’s home contests against the Austin Bruins leading the Brookings Blizzard by four points for the final playoff spot in the Central Division. Minot is 1-5 against the Bruins this season, including a pair of losses in Austin last weekend.

“It’s crunch time,” Minot coach Marty Murray said, “no question about it. We went into Austin last weekend and played OK at times. We had a few letdowns that cost us goals. It’s crucial this weekend we come out with two good games.”

The Tauros have lost seven of eight and are 5-12 in 2014. A bit of good news is Minot’s latest acquisitions have started adjusting to their new surroundings. Michael Louria, acquired in a trade from Janesville in return for defenseman Michael Bigelbach, scored twice and tallied an assist Saturday against Austin. Louria has two goals and three assists with the Tauros.

Luke Voltin, an addition from the United States Hockey League, recorded his first goal and assist on Saturday.

Minot will need to find a way to generate offense if it wants to compete with the Bruins. Austin averages 3.1 goals per game compared to 2.1 goals per contest for the Tauros. Murray said it starts with solving Austin goaltender Nick Lehr. The University of Minnesota commit is 30-12-1 this season with a 1.89 goals against average and .931 save percentage. Lehr’s goals against average ranks first in the Central Division and fourth in the NAHL.

“They have very solid goaltending in Lehr and we’re going to need to get to the traffic areas and get in front of him,” Murray said. “We can’t let him see the puck because he’s a good goalie. He’s going to stop it if he can see it. If we bring our work boots and compete hard both games, we stand a good chance.”

The Tauros have been doing a bit of scoreboard watching with Brookings making up ground in the standings. The Blizzard have won three of four and the teams meet in the final four games of the regular season.

“When there’s 10 games left you’re always wondering what other teams are doing, but our focus has to be on us,” Murray said. “We’ve been talking about it for a month. We can’t wait for them to lose. To keep in the playoff race, we have to take care of our own business.

“There’s got to be a lot of urgency. At times we’ve seen it and at times we need to be more consistent. Hopefully they realize the circumstances this weekend. We can help ourselves a lot by having a strong weekend.”

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.