It may have taken longer than they would have liked, but the Minot Minotauros locked up the final Central Division playoff spot with their victory over Brookings (S.D.) on Saturday, snapping a six-game losing streak in the process.
The Tauros (26-28-4) needed either a win or an Aberdeen loss dating back to March 8 for Minot to earn it's first trip to the postseason in its two-year existence. Two weeks and seven games later, the Tauros finally got that playoff-clinching victory.
"Obviously, we would have liked to have wrapped it up a few weeks prior, but it is what it is," Tauros coach Marty Murray said. "A goal we set at this time last season was to make the playoffs this season."
Tauros forward Jadin Martin (16) controls the puck in the defensive end as Austin’s Easton Viitala trails the play during a game earlier this month at Maysa Arena.
With only two games remaining in the regular season, Minot is locked into the No. 4 seed and plays top-seeded Austin (Minn.) in a best-of-five series beginning April 12. The Tauros play the first two games of the division semifinals in Austin before hosting the next two. Game 3 is on April 18 and Game 4 takes place the following day, if necessary. Game 5 would be in Austin on April 21, if necessary.
The Tauros had the Bruins' number earlier this season, winning the first four meetings, but Austin has won four of the last five - three via shutout. The other seven matchups have all been decided by one goal, including four in a shootout. The Tauros are 3-1 in shootouts against the Bruins.
"We're going to have to be at our best," Murray said. "It's been kind of a road series. We've won at their barn and they've beaten us here. They are a very talented hockey team. We have to be that meat and potatoes hard-working team."
Austin boasts the top four scorers in the division, including forward Brandon Wahlin, who is second in the North American Hockey League in points with 68 (20 goals, 48 assists). Forward A.J. Reid is seventh in the league in scoring with 60 points (22 g, 38 a). Minot forward Jake O'Borsky leads the Tauros with 40 points (13 g, 27 a).
Murray said when the Tauros are playing their best, they are as good as any opponent. That was evident during a 13-game stretch from late October to early December when Minot went 10-3. The run included a win against West Division leader Wenatchee (Wash.). It was during that stretch of games that Murray believed the Tauros were geared for a playoff run.
Despite a 19-win improvement from their inaugural season, the Tauros aren't necessarily satisfied with just making the postseason. They have their sights set on their first playoff series victory.
"We have to go in there and win one game three times," forward Jadin Martin said. "We have to take it game by game. Every time we play them it's like a playoff game. Everybody has to be on the same page."
Murray said he hadn't decided which goalie - Tyler Parks or Ryan Ruck - would get the Game 1 start. Parks suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Brookings on Friday and wasn't in the lineup for Saturday's game. Murray said he expects to have two healthy goaltenders come playoff time.
But before the playoffs begin in a few weeks, the Tauros have a home-and-home series with rival Bismarck starting Friday in the state capital.
"There's always something to play for," Murray said. "We want to go into the playoffs on a high note. Both sides are looking to win and, for us, we need to be geared up."