MELLENBRUCH: Feisty Minot-Austin series sets the table for tasty first-round clash

The Minot Minotauros and Austin Bruins don’t like each other. It’s as simple as that.

Need proof?

You don’t if you were at Maysa Arena over the weekend.

“I think those two games this weekend were probably more intense than any game we’ve had against Bismarck this year,” Minot coach Marty Murray said. “I don’t if it’s the history between us or what it is, but the Minot-Austin

rivalry is as intense as any in our division.”

No arguments here.

With playoff seeding still at stake, Minot and Austin split a pair of North American Hockey League contests over the weekend.

But they didn’t just share victories.

In just over 120 combined minutes, the Tauros and Bruins racked up 152 penalty minutes, 116 of which were related roughing, fighing or game misconducts. And that only accounted for a portion of the weekend’s post-whistle shenanigans, as referee intervention was required for just about every stoppage of play.

“It kind of sets the table for a strong first-round matchup now,” Murray said.

It certainly does.

Bismarck hasn’t quite locked up the Central Division title, but can do so with just one win this weekend at the Minnesota Magicians. If that happens, the Tauros and Bruins would meet in the North American Hockey League playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.

Buckle up, Minot fans. Austin could be coming back in less than two weeks.

“We wanted to send the message that, ‘Hey, we’re not going to take anything from you guys, so whatever you give us we’re going to give right back, and that’s the way it’s going to go in the first round of the playoffs,'” Minot second-year forward Chase Springman said. “And I think Marty (Murray) did a really good job of getting us prepared for that. The playoffs are now. This is all a big test for us, so we just went out and played the best that we could end up playing Austin in the first round.”

Springman was one of six players charged with a fighting major over the weekend.

And his encounter brought the biggest cheer from the crowd, and set the tone for a potential postseason showdown.

In the aftermath of yet another post-whistle scuffle late in the second period on Saturday, Springman and Austin’s Jacob Paganelli dropped the gloves at center ice to the delight of the 1,400 fans in attendance. Springman eventually took Paganelli down, launching a big right hand before both players fell to the ice.

Moments before the Springman-Paganelli incident, Minot’s Nate Pionk and Austin’s Evan Cholak got into it, too. That fight – the first of Pionk’s career – didn’t last as long, but eventually set the stage for Springman and Paganelli’s secondary altercation.

All four of Saturday’s fighters were subsequently ejected.

But Murray was pleased with how his players defended each other.

“I was happy with our guys. We want to walk that line where we’re not in the penalty box and getting distracted too much from the game, but I think we proved that we’re not going to back down from them even though they’re a little bigger than us,” Murray said. “Obviously they hoped that we would back down. You could see that from the first drop of the puck on Friday.”

Considering the Bruins’ size, it’s not hard to see why. As a team, Austin is both taller and heavier than the Tauros, and it doesn’t take much to notice it.

At 6-foot-2, Grayson Gavin is Minot’s tallest player, while just three other players weigh 200 pounds or heavier.

The Bruins are… bigger.

Of their 23 active players – not including goalies, both of which stand at least 6-2- 13 are 6-foot or taller, including six who stand at least 6-3.

In an attempt to level the playing field against the Tauros – who are a quicker, more skilled team – Austin tried using its size to its advantage.

But Minot has having none of it.

“I think both teams definitely sent a message,” Pionk said. “We both know that it’s going to be a grind, that it’s going to be a battle every shift, every period. We’re going to have to bring it.”

Said Murray: “Obviously they’re bigger in stature than us, and I think that was probably their game plan coming into the weekend, to make sure they were hard on us physically. It was evident that that was kind of their game plan.”

If that’s their game plan in two weeks, the Tauros will be ready.

“They came into that game wanting to let us know that we’re going to bring it for the playoffs, and I think that’s what we all felt,” Springman said. “We were kind of mad about it, that that’s what they were going to come out and do, but we rose up to the occasion, for sure.

“If we end up playing each other, it’s going to be a really good series. It’s going to be really physical, and both teams are going to bring it.”

This is the opinion of Joe Mellenbruch, sports editor of The Minot Daily News. Joe covers Minot State athletics, the Minot Minotauros and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.