As the North American Hockey League season wound down, it appeared that the Minot Minotauros' final four games against the Brookings Blizzard to end the year would determine which team grabbed the last playoff spot in the Central Division.
That is no longer the case as the Tauros clinched their second straight trip to the playoffs over the weekend. The Blizzard's fifth consecutive loss locked up Minot's postseason berth.
The Tauros own an eight-point advantage in the standings over Brookings with four games left, but Minot has six more wins than the Blizzard, which is the first tiebreaker if the teams finish deadlocked in points. The Tauros will play either the Austin Bruins or the Aberdeen Wings in the first round of the playoffs.
The Minot Minotauros punched their ticket to the NAHL playoffs over the weekend when the Brookings Blizzard suffered their fifth straight loss. Minot lost to Austin in the first round last year.
Minot High senior Quinn Fuchs has joined the Tauros. He had 158 career points with the Magicians.
"We're trying to fine-tune our own game first and then, once we figure out who we do play, we can prepare for that opponent," Minot coach Marty Murray said. "But, for us, we're fine-tuning where we need to be and get the best out of our guys day in and day out."
Minot finished the regular season 2-6 against Austin and 5-7 against Aberdeen. The Wings have won 12 of their last 14 games and are three points behind the Bruins for the division lead.
"I think we match up with anybody when we play hard and we can give a lot of teams trouble," Murray said. "When we're at our best, we can match up with anybody, but when we have a few guys taking the night off, we get in a lot of trouble."
The playoff experience from last year should help, although it didn't end the way the Tauros had hoped. Minot split the first two games of the series in Austin before losing the final two at Maysa Arena. The final three games were decided by a goal two in overtime.
"You're on the road in the first two games and you have to take one of those games, if not two, to come back and have some momentum," Minot forward Tim Donohue said. "Last year was a big steppingstone for us and this year we're looking for more."
The Tauros scored just five goals in four playoff games last year and are looking for better production this time around. Jake McCann leads the team with 12 goals and Jon Lizotte has a team-best 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists). The addition of Michael Louria via trade was intended for the purpose of boosting the team's offense. Louria has two goals and five assists in nine games with the Tauros and has 45 points (21 g, 24 a) this season.
"Hopefully we can get clicking and get some timely goal scoring," Murray said. "I think we can compete with anybody and we've proven that this year. The playoffs are going to be that much more intense, but it you talk to any coach in our division, they'll say anybody can beat anybody."
Before the playoffs begin in April, Minot plays Brookings to end the regular season. The teams are in Minot this weekend and in Brookings the following weekend.
"We don't want to lose any strides we've made going into the playoffs," Donohue said. "We definitely need to keep playing the way we have been."
Minot High's Fuchs joins Tauros
The Minot High boys hockey team's season may be over, but Quinn Fuchs hasn't hung up his skates.
Fuchs will suit up for the Minot Minotauros this weekend against the Brookings Blizzard, less than a month removed from helping the Magicians place third at the state tournament in Grand Forks.
The Magicians' captain was placed on the Tauros' affiliate list they sent to the league in December, which allows them to put Fuchs on the roster once the paperwork is filed. Tauros coach Marty Murray said Fuchs has practiced "on and off" with the team over the last couple weeks.
"He's a local kid that's had a lot of success and we thought if we could get in a situation where we clinch a playoff spot, we could give him an opportunity to see how he does at this level," Murray said. "That's what this weekend's about. I'm looking forward to him having the opportunity to play. He has some great hockey sense and we'll see if it translates to this level."
Fuchs finished third in the state in scoring with 68 points (24 goals, 44 assists) in 27 games and was named to the all-West Region team. He finished his high school career with 158 points (45 g, 113 a).
Murray is looking forward to seeing what Fuchs can do at the next level.
"It'll be a good measuring stick for some things he may have to work on over the summer," he said. "I think he'll probably notice the pace being quicker and the guys being bigger and stronger. He's a smart hockey player and those guys with high hockey IQs can play at any level."
Mike Kraft covers Minot High athletics, the Minot Minotauros and the Minot State men's club hockey team. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.