In-state showdown

Already assured of a playoff berth, the Minot Minotauros won’t begin their postseason run for another 23 days.

Nobody told Minot coach Marty Murray.

“The playoffs are here, whether we’re ready to say it or not,” he said.

Technically, Minot still has five regular-season games to play – beginning with tonight’s pivotal showdown against rival Bismarck, which begins at 7:05 at Maysa Arena – but each is crucial as the Tauros pursue their first Central Division title in franchise history.

Minot and Bismarck are still tied atop the division standings on 69 points, but the Bobcats still boast two games in hand.

After tonight’s contest, the Tauros welcome three-time defending division champion Austin for a weekend series beginning April 1. They’ll then wrap up their regular season with a two-game set at Brookings the following weekend.

If the Tauros hope to finish first, and they do, they’re “probably going to have to win all five,” Murray said.

“After Bismarck we’ll get Austin the following weekend, which could potentially be our first-round matchup. Those are going to be two playoff games,” Murray said. “And then looking forward to our final two games of the season against Brookings, there could be playoff implications for them, too.”

“If we don’t win proabably the rest of our games this year, I don’t think first place is really in our hands,” said rookie forward Austin Martinsen, who leads the Tauros with 17 goals. “But if we keep playing like we are, keep playing as a team and keep battling, we have a pretty good chance to get it.”

Recent history suggest they’ll have a good chance tonight.

Bismarck has maintained a grip on the Central Division since the turn of the year, but the Bobcats have had recent trouble with the Tauros. Minot was defeated by Bismarck six times in regulation over a 34-day stretch between December and January, but the Tauros have since won three straight over their in-state rival.

With a 5-6 record against the Bobcats, Minot can level the season series with a victory tonight.

“It’s a huge rivalry, and we’re playing for first place. We’re really looking forward to it,” Minot forward Derek Frentz said. “There’s already a lot of energy buzzing around. It’s not that tough to get amped up for a rivalry game like this.”

Both the Tauros and Bobcats have been among the North American Hockey League’s hottest clubs in recent weeks.

Following its thrilling 6-5 win over Bismarck on Jan. 9, which snapped a four-game losing streak, Minot’s produced a 16-3-2 record over its last 21 games. The Bobcats have been nearly as prolific, sporting a 15-5-2 mark during the same stretch – a record that also includes three regulation losses to the Tauros.

After tonight’s contest, Bismarck welcomes the Blizzard for a weekend series before closing its regular season with four straight games against the fifth-place Minnesota Magicians, who are still fighting for their playoff lives.

Even if the Tauros win tonight, they’re still going to need help from Brookings and Minnesota, both of which are currently on the outside looking in.

“You obviously want to finish as high as you can in the standings,” Murray said. “I don’t believe the result will define our season, but we’re all competitors. We want to finish as high as we can, and Bismarck is probably the team we’ll have to get through to get to the Robertson Cup. We’ll give it our best shot tonight. We’re a good road team, too, but ultimately we want that No. 1 seed and home-ice advantage.”

Said Frentz: “It’d definitely be awesome to hang up a banner as division champs, and home-ice advantage is huge in the playoffs. We have great fans, so that helps out a ton when you’re playing most of a five-game series at home.”

Joe Mellenbruch covers Minot State athletics, the Minot Minotauros and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.