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Playoff Preview: Minot Minotauros vs Bismarck Bobcats

Keenan Rancier helped lead the Minotauros to a third-place finish in the NAHL Central Division. They will now face the Bismarck Bobcats in the opening round of the playoffs. Ryan Ladika/MDN

The Minot Minotauros will embark on a playoff push this season for the eighth time in the history of the team after clinching their postseason spot with a 4-3 overtime defeat at the hands of the Bismarck Bobcats May 7.

Minot will enter the NAHL’s postseason for the eighth consecutive year, not counting the canceled playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. The team has historically struggled to survive the first round of the postseason, only advancing past their initial playoff series once in the seasons between 2013 and 2017.

The Minotauros enjoyed a bit more success in their postseason appearances in the years following 2017, highlighted by a Robertson Cup Championship Game appearance in 2018, but the team fell 2-1 to the Shreveport Mudbugs in pursuit of their first NAHL title.

Before the 2020 postseason was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Minot also earned a postseason berth in 2019 and defeated the Bismarck Bobcats by way of a three-game sweep before falling to the Aberdeen Wings in four in the second round.

Minot will now prepare to once again face the second-place Bobcats in the first round of a best-of-five series, assuming the standings entering play May 14 hold with Minot finishing in third place in the central division and Bismarck in second.

SEASON

SERIES

The Tauros collected four wins over the Bobcats in 12 games this season. The majority of the two teams’ meetings occurred within the first three months of the season, with Minot facing off against Bismarck twice in October and three times in November and December.

The Minotauros struggled against their higher-seeded opponent throughout the season series, but especially near the beginning of the season when Minot won only one of its first four matchups with the Bobcats. The sole victory in that span was a 1-0 shutout on the first night of the season; Damon Zimmer tallied the only score and starting goaltender Keenan Rancier stopped all 46 shots the Bobcats threw his way.

Minot dropped each of the next three contests by a 12-6 aggregate score before it finally snapped its skid with a 4-3 victory November 28. The Minotauros responded with another three-game losing streak against the Bobcats, as they were outscored 13-3 including two straight shutout defeats from December 18-31.

Entering their May 7 matchup, Minot was riding a two-game win streak, having earned a 4-3 win March 12 and another 4-1 victory March 13. Overall, the Bobcats outscored Minot by a 42-28 total through the season series en route to a 4-5-2-1 record.

OFFENSE

Minot had scored 148 total goals through its first 54 games this season, good 2.7 per game and the third-most in the division overall. With 1,568 total shots on goal during that span, the Minotauros are recording an average of just over 29 shots per game.

Cade Stibbe was the team leader in points entering the team’s May 14 contest, as the 5’7″ forward had recorded a total of 32 points, including 13 goals and 19 assists, during that span. He had put together consecutive games with at least one point seven different times to begin his season, and at one point had compiled a four-game point streak March 5-13 that saw him score three goals and help on four more.

Tyler Kostelecky and Minotauros’ captain Jack Westlund have also recorded impressive numbers in the offensive zone this season, coming in second and third on the team with 29 (16 goals, 13 assists) and 29 (11 and 18) points, respectively, entering Minot’s May 14 game.

Kostelecky has contributed multi-goal efforts on four different occasions this season, and had put together a four-game point streak twice this year. Westlund at one point had registered seven points in a four-game span April 2-9, punctuated by a three-assist night to help lead Minot over the Minnesota Wilderness 6-2 April 9.

On the other end, Bismarck has experienced a bit more success in the offensive zone than their counterpart, having potted 171 goals in the same number of games, giving them a tick over three scores per game and ranked second in the NAHL’s Central Division to Aberdeen’s eye-popping 237. With 1,586 total shots on net through their first 54 games, the Bobcats are averaging one more shot per game than the Minotauros, at just over 29.

Ryan Taylor sat atop the Bobcats’ scoresheet entering their May 14 contest with 41 points made up by 19 goals and 22 assists. George Grannis followed closely behind with 19 goals and 19 assists for 38 total points.

Grannis, in his fourth season with Bismarck, has increased his offensive production with each passing year. He recorded just five points during the 2017-18 campaign, then 15 in 2018-19, and finally 26 in 2019-20 before his 38 this season.

Assuming the current standings hold, Minot would travel to Bismarck to open the first-round best-of-five series. Teams often perform better at home, and this series is no exception. The Bobcats own a 14-9-2-3 record on home ice overall, and Minot sputtered to a 10-11-4-1 record away from Maysa Arena through 54 games.

Where the rule differs a bit is on the special teams units. Minot’s power play is actually better on the road, converting 17.2 percent of its chances against 15.3 percent at home, and Bismarck also performs significantly better on the man advantage on the road, 27.7 percent against 15.8 percent at home.

DEFENSE AND GOALTENDING

Keenan Rancier has been the mainstay between the pipes throughout the season for Minot, appearing in 42 of Minot’s first 54 contests. Backup goalie Carter Clafton has made up the majority of the games Rancier has had off, earning 11 games in net.

Rancier had posted a save percentage of .913 through his first 42 games, allowing 135 goals, the most in the league, for a 3.22 goals against average and recording two shutouts. Rancier had also faced the most shots in the NAHL at 1,543, 66 more than the next highest mark (the Northeast Generals’ Hugo Haas’ 1,477). He has also dealt with a pretty heavy workload, as his 2,519 minutes entering May 14’s contest were the second-most in the league, only to Aberdeen’s Jake Sibell’s 2,696.

Bismarck has split its time in net more evenly among their rostered netminders. Through 54 games, three goalies have played at least 14 games, with Tommy Aitken earning the majority of the starts. The Winchester, Massachusetts native recorded a .910 save percentage through his 21 games. Aitken had also faced only 543 shots through his 21 games, an average of 25.9 per game. Extending that out to Rancier’s much greater workload, he would be on pace to face approximately 1,088 shots through 42 games.

Ian Shane and Cameron Korpi have combined for most of the remaining starts in net for Bismarck with 15 and 14 games, respectively. The duo boasts save percentages of .915 and .926 in their limited time on the ice, and both have allowed under three goals per game as well.

On the special teams side, Bismarck’s penalty kill has been a strength through their first 54 games, dispatching of 85 percent of the infractions the squad takes. This mark outpaces Minot’s by a wide margin, as the Minotauros have killed just 43 of 174 penalties in that span, good for a 75 percent success rate. The Bobcats’ kill is also much more efficient at home, doing away with almost 90 percent of penalties, while Minot is succeeding at a 75 percent clip on the road when shorthanded.

Bismarck had also allowed the second-fewest goals among central division teams, as their 144 goals against were bested only by Aberdeen’s 73 entering play May 14. Minot, on the other hand, had allowed the second-most goals in the division with 185. Only St. Cloud had allowed more goals during that span with 192.

THE VERDICT

As the standings and numbers would suggest, Bismarck likely holds a slight edge over the Minotauros in the series. The Bobcats have split time between goaltenders more evenly than Minot has throughout the season, meaning the Bismarck netminders likely enter the series on fresher legs than Rancier, who has done the majority of the Minotauros’ goaltending himself.

The Bobcats defense has also prevented more shots from reaching its net than the Minotauros’ unit, and Bismarck has enjoyed a bit more success in the offensive zone. Keeping in mind the series’ first two games would also start on the road, and Minot faces an uphill battle to advance to the second round.

The Minotauros have consistently shown the ability to win crucial games in hostile environments, though, such as their 2-1 road victory over the first-place Aberdeen Wings March 17, or their 3-0 shutout victory authored by Clafton over Sibell and those same Wings April 6. A confident Minotauros offense is led by Stibbe, Kostelecky Westlund and Blaine Warnert, who recently tallied his second hat trick of the season May 1.

Rancier has shown extended signs of brilliance between the pipes as well, most notably a January 27-February 13 stretch when he did not allow more than two goals in any of his six starts.

A playoff series victory against the Bobcats is certainly well-within the abilities of the club, but they will need to bring their best game to Bismarck in order to accomplish the feat.

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