Minot journeyman Rivers still impressing between the pipes

Minot Minotauros coach Marty Murray knew what he was getting with Gunner Rivers.

Acquired via trade from Odessa on Jan. 25, Rivers – who turns 21 in just over a month – arrived in Minot amid his sixth season of junior hockey. Before joining the Tauros, Rivers had played for six different junior clubs since 2010-11.

His move to Minot marked the third midseason trade of his career.

“But this trade was different because I knew this was going to be the last place I played in junior hockey, especially considering that it happend at that point in the season,” Rivers said. “I wanted to end my junior career on the best note possible.”

And he is.

After starting the year with a pair of rookie goaltenders, the Tauros needed Rivers’ brand of experience between the pipes.

“It seemed to be a good fit,” Murray said. “We felt as though we needed to bring someone in with experience, and Gunner’s a guy that’s played a lot of junior hockey. He’s come in and added some calmness to our group.”

One of Minot’s rookie goaltenders, Jon Flakne, was dealt to the Jackalopes in exchange for the journeyman Rivers. Following his introduction, Rivers was brought in to take part in a “healthy competition” for the No. 1 job.

Now just over two months later, that job is Rivers’ to lose.

“If the playoffs started today, he’d probably be our guy to tap on the shoulder,” Murray said, “but anything can change here in the next couple weeks. Our focus is Austin this weekend, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

“We’re ecstatic about his play since he arrived in Minot.”

It’s not hard to see why.

Since making his first start for the Tauros on Jan. 29 at Aberdeen – during which he recorded Minot’s first shutout win of the season – Rivers has been among the NAHL’s elite netminders.

In 12 starts for the Tauros, Rivers has produced a 9-1-2 record – including three shutouts – and is currently riding a five-start winning streak following last week’s resounding 4-0 win over Bismarck. Rivers has also produced a 1.73 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage since joining Minot, which sits just one point behind the Bobcats for the Central Division lead.

Since Jan. 29, only two NAHL goaltenders have recorded more wins than Rivers (16-9-2 overall), while none has racked up a better save percentage.

“I’m maybe surprised in the sense that he’s probably had the best numbers of any goaltender since the trade deadline,” Murray said. “In the month of March, he was 5-0 with a 1.60 goals-against and a .950 save percentage. Those are astronomical numbers.

“I’m not surprised he’s doing well, but I am a little surprised that he’s on pace to set league records. He’s been real competitive for us.”

Said Rivers: “I wouldn’t say I’ve surprised myself. I always knew I had that in my game. I’ve been in some unfortunate situations where it’s tough as a goalie to put up those kinds of numbers, but we have a great team here that allows me to do what I do best. I’ve just taken this opportunity and ran with it.”

Rivers hasn’t been the only one to benefit from his recent production.

Fellow goaltender Lucas Murray has also benefitted from Rivers’ presence, and his numbers reflect as much. Following Rivers’ arrival, Murray won his next four starts – including his first shutout of the year in a 2-0 home win over Aberdeen on Feb. 6 – and was subsequently named the Tauros’ player of the month in February for his efforts.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say Gunner was expected to come in and be the No. 1 right away. I think we have a really good No. 1 A-B combo with him and Lucas,” Marty Murray said. “It was evident as we approaced the trade deadline that we just needed a change at that position, just for our own confidence with our goalies and with the entire team, as well.”

Rivers is slated to start Friday’s series opener against Austin, which begins at 7:35 p.m. at Maysa Arena. The Tauros are still within shouting distance of their first division title in franchise history, and already assured of home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But with Rivers in net, Minot’s goals are suddenly stretching far beyond the first round.

“I have no doubt that this can be a championship team,” Rivers said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams around this league. I know we have what it takes. We just have to bring it every night. If we do that, a championship is definitely possible.”

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