Minotauros force all-or-nothing Game 3 in the Robertson Cup semifinals
BLAINE, Minn. – Twenty-five games into the North American Hockey League (NAHL) 2017-18 regular season, the Minot Minotauros were dead last in the Central Division with a middling 11-11-3 overall record.
Fast forward five months and the resilient Minotauros are one win away from playing in the final game of the NAHL season.
A berth in the organization’s first Robertson Cup championship game remains on the table after Minot staved off elimination Saturday evening for the third time this postseason with a 2-0 shutout over the top-seeded Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.
Miroslav Mucha came through with the game-winning goal 6:33 into the third period – mere moments after the Minotauros had a goal disallowed off the skate of Sam Fuss.
“I think it was 17 seconds,” Minotauros coach Marty Murray said about the gap between agony and feeling elation again. “Miro (Mucha) got a big goal there, Samu (Lonkila) was a rock star again and we got the empty netter. So, it wasn’t easy, but we found a way to win. We are going to enjoy it and then get ready for tomorrow.”
Lonkila, the first star of the game, made 30 saves in net for his third shutout of the postseason. He settled in and got better as the game wore on Saturday.
“As long as it is a scoreless game, it’s easier to play,” Lonkila said. “I tried to get a better feeling (throughout the game) and stop all the pucks. During the third period, they had a couple of really good chances.”
Murray added: “He is dialed in. He has been our MVP here in the playoffs and he proved it again today that he is a big time goalie.”
Possession was fairly even in the first period, but Fairbanks had the two best scoring chances with Erkka Vanska and Tanner Schachle both grazing the goal post.
The Minotauros came up empty on two power plays, but a scoreless opening frame was sufficient enough, especially after giving up three costly goals in the first period of Game 1.
“I think everybody knows that Fairbanks has one of the best offenses in the league,” Minotauros forward Ondrej Pavel said. “But, today Samu (Lonkila) played unreal and our defense was working really good.”
Scoreless after two periods, the shots on goal were also even at 14-14.
Despite Fairbanks peppering Lonkila in the third period and outshooting the Minotauros 16-5, it was Mucha who delivered with his first goal of the postseason.
“Austin Dollimer was driving wide and tried to find me on a backdoor,” Mucha said. “But, I was too slow and couldn’t reach the puck. It bounced off the boards and I tried to do a little scissor play with the ‘D’ and I took whatever they gave me. I ended up on my backhand, tried to shoot it top glove and it worked out.”
Pavel added: “(Mucha) just walked into the middle and shot it backhand top shelf. It’s just what he does. He practices that before every practice and he is a pure goal scorer. We are really lucky to have him.”
Seconds prior to Mucha’s heroics, Fuss thought he had scored the monumental goal. But, it was waved off and deemed Fuss had a slight kicking motion to redirect the puck into the net off his skate.
“We couldn’t look back because we couldn’t do anything about it,” Mucha said. “They waved it off and we just had to keep playing. Eventually, it showed that it was supposed to be a goal.”
Pavel added: “We have a saying that when we are playing well that the (puck) never lies. I think it should have been a goal for us, so I think some of the Hockey Gods gave it to us there.”
Minotauros captain Alex Adams added an empty netter with 1:13 remaining.
“Feels great, obviously, and it’s a big win for us,” Mucha said. “It’s a quick turnaround, so we can’t celebrate too long because we have a big game tomorrow.”
A winner-takes-all Game 3 for a spot in the Robertson Cup championship game will take place at 3 p.m. this afternoon at the Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.
Alex Eisen covers Minot High School, Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.