Don't look now but the Minot Minotauros are tied for third place with Brookings (S.D.) with 32 points and are only one game behind rival Bismarck for second as they Tauros hit the halfway point of their schedule.
At 15-13-2 overall, the Tauros have a firm grip on a playoff spot, sitting 11 points ahead of Coulee Region for the fourth and final postseason berth out of the NAHL Central Division.
As the weather grew colder the Tauros got hotter. In November and December, Minot posted a 12-3 record which included a six-game winning streak. The two-month stretch produced nearly twice as many victories as the Tauros had all last season, when Minot won just seven games.
Minot’s Cameron Rowat skates the puck up the ice as goaltender Tyler Parks looks on. Both have been an integral part of the team’s shootout success this season.
The Tauros' success the last two months can be primarily attributed to one thing - shootout success.
"We practice it a ton," assistant coach and goaltending specialist Terry Dunbar said. "You can't afford not to practice it. Our goalies have been pretty spot on. It's been fun to watch."
Minot has found success in goaltenders Tyler Parks and Ryan Ruck. Although Parks has started more than twice the games Ruck has this season and played nearly three times the minutes, Ruck is making the most of his opportunities. The California native has won his last two starts and is coming off a 4-0 shutout at Coulee Region last Thursday in which he made a career-high 30 saves.
"They're very contrasting styles of goalies," Dunbar said. "Tyler covers so much net. In 1-on-1 scenarios it's tough to beat that type of coverage. It's unbelievable. When you really need to lean on a guy, you can count on him."
Parks has been the go-to goalie for Minot, winning 12 of his 20 starts this season. Parks' numbers are nearly identical to his 2011-12 season with NAHL North Division Springfield (Ill.). With the Jr. Blues, Parks started 20 games and registered a 12-9-1 record. He had a 2.75 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. This season in the same amount of starts, Parks is 12-7-1, allowing 2.56 goals per contest and stopping 92 percent of shots faced.
"He's a monster," Tauros coach Marty Murray said. "He's a big guy who plays his position well. There's not much net to shoot at."
When the game is on the line, most notably in shootouts, both goaltenders have shined. The Tauros are 7-1 in shootouts, winning their first six. Ruck won his only shootout appearance back in September against Fresno. He stopped three of five shots and helped the Tauros win their first game of the season.
Parks has been in net for the other seven shootouts. His first shootout experience in a Tauros jersey went 12 rounds against Fresno. Parks stopped 10 of 12 shots to earn the victory - the first of five straight wins in shootouts for Parks. In his last three shootout wins, Parks has not allowed an opponent to tally a goal in the extra period (13-for-13). Parks and Ruck have combined to stop 35 of 46 shots in shootouts.
"That gives the boys a lot of confidence," Dunbar said. "Between the two of them, there's not many tandems who are as strong as what we have."
Making life easier for the two goaltenders has been the play of Minot's shooters. The Tauros have scored 19 goals in shootouts, eight more than Austin, who has the second-most goals. Minot's .422 shootout goal percentage is the third highest in the NAHL behind only Bismarck (.444) and Texas (.583).
Nine different Tauros have scored a shootout goal, led by Cameron Rowat, Steven Sherman and Matt Audette, who all have a team-high four tallies.
"Sherman and Rowat have some good offensive techniques," Murray said. "They've all scored big goals in shootouts for us. Steve and Cameron will pick apart the goalie if they give them room to. Matt has a couple of moves he'll go to."
Dunbar said the players' confidence is apparent leading up to the shootouts. In the idle moments between the end of overtime and the start of the shootout, Dunbar said the players are typically loose with smiles on their faces, while the opposition is on edge.
Despite all the success in shootouts, Murray hopes to have more victories end in regulation to avoid giving the opposition unnecessary points in the standings.
The Tauros host Brookings on Friday at 7:35 p.m. The two are tied for third place in the NAHL Central Division.