Another opportunity

The rosters have vastly changed since the Minot Minotauros and Austin Bruins met last year in the first round of the North American Hockey League playoffs, but the contests against one another this season have looked all too familiar.

When the teams meet in Austin on Friday in Game 1, only 15 skaters – six for the Tauros and nine for the Bruins – will have participated in both playoff matchups. Austin defeated Minot in four games last year, winning the final two at Maysa Arena.

“I think it’s probably pretty similar,” Minot coach Marty Murray said. “We’re going in as the underdog and we’re OK with that. They have a strong team, obviously, but we played them pretty tough this year, so it’s going to be a battle from the drop of the puck in the first game to the end and hopefully we can come together as a group.”

Austin won the season series 6-2, with all eight games decided by two goals or less. One of Minot’s two wins came against Austin backup goaltender Dillon Kelley, who made a rare start in place of Nick Lehr. The Tauros can expect to see Lehr, a University of Minnesota commit, between the pipes for as long as the series goes. Lehr is 35-13-1 this season with a 1.84 goals against average and a .932 save percentage, both fifth-best in the league.

Lehr was in net for all three wins against Minot during last year’s playoffs. The Tauros, on the other hand, have two goaltenders in Brandon Wildung and Merrick Madsen with zero playoff experience. Murray said he hasn’t made the decision on a Game 1 starter.

The Bruins won the Central Division for the second straight year in part because of their ability to protect home ice. Austin sported a league-best 26-4 record at home during the regular season – three losses were to Bismarck. Minot was 0-4 at Austin, but it isn’t concerned with regular-season statistics.

“They only lost four games at home during the regular season,” Tauros forward Tim Donohue said. “Playoff hockey is different. It’s way different. I think that’s what’s going to help us through. They’re definitely in for a different team than we’ve shown in the past.”

Said Murray: “That’s what you go in there looking for: a split. It’s a difficult barn to play in, but they’re beatable just like anyone else in the league.”

The Bruins enter the postseason winners of 11 of their last 13 and have dominated their opponents during that stretch. Austin averaged 3.5 goals per game in that span and allowed just 1.7.

“Their top line is really good and they have a good power play,” Tauros defenseman Max Pernhem said. “If we get our forecheck going, I think we can do some damage.”

Austin’s Jay Dickman and Guillaume Leclerc combined for 110 points (49 goals, 61 assists) during the regular season, nearly one third of Minot’s scoring as a whole. The Bruins’ power play operates at a 12.4 percent success rate (32-for-259) and their penalty kill ranks second at 90.5 percent.

Both Donohue and Pernhem believe a solid forecheck is the key against Austin.

“We’ve been working on the forecheck the past couple weeks with our forwards really frustrating their defense, which we feel is their weakness,” Donohue said. “We’re going to try and expose that and hopefully come away with a couple points from there. At least get one game and come back here and win the next two.”

A struggle for most of the season, the Tauros have found ways to put the puck in the back of the net of late. Minot’s recorded 13 goals in its last four games. Michael Louria has five goals in his last three games and leads the Tauros with 51 points (26 g, 25 a). Defenseman Scott Dornbrock is coming off a hat trick Friday and four other Tauros have 20-plus points.

“Our best players need to be our best players,” Murray said. “If they are, I think they match up well with their best players. It’s a matter of just going out and believing we can win. We’re certainly the underdog if you look at the standings, but as long as the group inside the locker room believes we can do it, we at least have a fighting chance.”

Mike Kraft covers Minot High athletics, the Minot Minotauros and the Minot State men’s club hockey team. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.