Another trophy in sight

Upset-minded Tauros looking to upgrade the Central Cup for the Robertson Cup

Alex Eisen/MDN Minotauros captain Alex Adams carries the Central Cup off the Maysa Arena ice last Friday after sweeping the Austin Bruins.

The Central Cup was on the ice in full display at Maysa Arena last Friday evening after the Minot Minotauros swept the Austin Bruins following a double overtime goal by Nolan Sawchuk.

Some players looked at it. Some players touched it. Captain Alex Adams got rid of it.

Adams, with a grimace on his face, carried the hardware over to the bench to be stored away. While it was enjoyable to admire for a few minutes, the franchise’s first Central Cup is far from the ultimate prize that the Minotauros are seeking to behold.

While the once unattainable goal has been achieved, a more prestigious cup is now in reach.

“We have had teams in the past that were capable of getting here, but the Central Division is very difficult to get out of,” Minotauros general manager and head coach Marty Murray said. “Unfortunately, we hadn’t got it done in the past, but we are proud of where we are at today. We feel like we took a big step in the right direction and gained more respect for our program.”

Alex Eisen/MDN A group of Minotauros come together for a hug after beating the Austin Bruins in Game 3 of the second round of the NAHL Robertson Cup Playoffs last Friday at Maysa Arena in Minot.

The next and final step for the Minotauros is to crash the party this weekend in Blaine, Minnesota, and swipe the Robertson Cup. A daunting challenge where they will be tasked with taking down the top team in the league. Then, if they survive that, a winner-take-all championship game occurs on Monday.

Either the clock will strike midnight on this so-called fairy tale or a happily ever after awaits.

“Everybody is calling us the Cinderella story, but I think we have played well and deserve to be here,” Murray said. “They can call us what they want, I guess. We are representing the Central Division, which is a very difficult division to get out of with the competition we played night in and night out. Our guys are pumped to represent the Central Division in the Robertson Cup.”

The Central Division No. 4-seeded Minotauros (28-26-6 regular season) knocked off the Central Division regular season champions, the Aberdeen Wings, in the first round after a hard-fought, five-game series. Three more consecutive wins against the No. 2-seeded Bruins in the second round and the Minotauros have won five straight postseason games.

The reward? Minot gets the lowly No. 4 seed again in the Robertson Cup semifinals against the top-seeded Fairbanks Ice Dogs (45-8-7). The Ice Dogs have won the Robertson Cup three times in the past seven seasons (2016, 2014 and 2011).

“We know they are the best team in the league,” Minot forward Grant Loven said. “There is no doubt there. They play a hard, fast game. We just got to be ready to go when the time comes.”

The Ice Dogs were led offensively in the regular season by Hunter Wendt (17 goals, 44 assists), Samuel Ruffin (20, 37), Erkka Vanska (19, 36), Robert Blueger (16, 36) and Tanner Schachle (24, 27). Ruffin has nine points (three goals and six assists) in eight postseason games.

In the crease throughout the playoffs, Fairbank’s goaltender Josh Benson has allowed 2.54 goals against and has a mediocre 86.8 save percentage. Rookie goalie Logan Neaton has also seen action in two playoff games.

“I think they have a lot of similarities to Aberdeen,” Murray said. “They are very deep up front and have three, four lines that can really do some damage. We are going to have to be at our best. We can have any passengers.”

Minot’s playoff success so far starts between the pipes. Goaltender Samu Lonkila has been lights out with two shutouts, 1.74 goals against and a 94.3 save percentage.

The Minotauros’ offensive production in the postseason has been evenly spread out. Seventeen players have registered a point in eight games, 11 of which have three points or more. Adams leads the charge averaging a point per game with four goals and four assists. Sawchuk is next with three goals (two game-winning goals), three assists and a plus/minus of six.

Defenseman Colby Enns, recently selected fourth overall in the United States Hockey League Phase II draft by the Central Illinois Flying Aces, has a team-high plus/minus of seven.

“We got to be moving our feet and getting pucks deep,” Enns said. “That’s how we win games.”

Loven, Ryan Green, David Raisanen and Keenan Lund each have chipped in two postseason goals.

“I have never played in the postseason in the juniors before. So, hopefully with this being my last year, we can end on a good note,” Loven said. “The whole regular season you are trying to make the playoffs. Then, when you make it, it’s time to show what you got and see how far you can get.”

The Minotauros and Ice Dogs met four times during the regular season and Fairbanks won the series 3-0-1. Yet, three of the contests were decided by one goal.

“We have played with them,” Murray said. “They are human. They are a very good hockey team and we have to respect them, but we can’t be in awe of them either. If we kind of get on our heels, then that’s when they are going to make us look silly.”

That was displayed in their previous meeting back in February when Fairbanks scored six goals in the first period and held Minot off for a 6-5 win.

“We have to play smart,” Murray said. “We can’t give up odd-man rushes and we can’t get into a trading chances type of game with that team. They are too talented up front and a team that feeds off momentum.”

Game 1 between the hottest team and the top-ranked team in the NAHL is this afternoon at 4:30 p.m. in Blaine, Minnesota, at the Fogerty Ice Arena. Game 2 of the best-of-three series is at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. If needed Game 3 would take place at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Robertson Cup championship game will be played at 7 p.m. Monday. All games are being played at the Fogerty Ice Arena.

Alex Eisen covers Minot High School, Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.