Meddling in the middle

Minotauros notebook: Third in the Central Division approaching the halfway mark

Alex Eisen/MDN Minotauros goaltender Nicholas Grabko (35) paddles the puck aside in an NAHL game played earlier this season at Maysa Arena in Minot.

Twenty-seven games into the NAHL season, the Minot Minotauros find themselves lodged right in the middle of a tight Central Division race with a respectable record of 17-9-1.

The Top 4 teams in the division, all of which go on to make the playoffs, are separated by only five points: Aberdeen Wings (38), Austin Bruins (37), Minot Minotauros (35) and Bismarck Bobcats (33).

The Minnesota Wilderness are lurking in fifth place with 27 points, while the Brookings Blizzard bring up the rear and are completely out of the picture already with a 3-22-2 record (eight points).

With 33 games remaining, the Minotauros are in a comfortable position to make the playoffs for a seventh straight season. Not only that, Minot is in striking distance to nab one of the Top 2 spots in the division and hold home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

It’s a much better outlook than the Minotauros had last year coming into the halfway point. But, it was finding that swagger late in the season that made last season’s Robertson Cup championship game run a possibility.

Could the pursuit of regular season Central Division title light that same fire? You’d like to think so, but it didn’t during the 2016-17 season — when the Minotauros finished top of the division for the first time in franchise history only to be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

That said, falling into another battle to just reach the postseason is far from ideal.

Meddling in the middle can be an awkward place to reside.

Cooling off slightly after a hot start

After losing the season opener at the NAHL Showcase to the Northeast Generals, 7-5, the Minotauros rattled off seven wins in their next eight games. Scoring pucks at will, Minot was the hottest team in the league coming out of the gates.

The first major red flag surfaced when the Brookings Blizzard came to Minot in the middle of November. The three-win Blizzard created an avalanche that stunned the Minotauros, 7-2, on Nov. 16. The following night, the two teams were deadlocked at 4-4 entering the third period before Andrew Kangas scored with under four minutes left to rescue the win for the Minotauros.

Kangas leads the Minotauros with five game-winning goals.

The Austin Bruins have also caused a few problems. The season series is currently knotted up at 3-3 with four of the contests held at the Riverside Arena in Austin, Minnesota.

The Minotauros snapped a three-game losing skid, which included two losses to the Bruins, on Saturday with a 4-3 win over the Bismarck Bobcats at Maysa Arena.

Returners leading by example

The roster overhaul for the Minotauros from last season to this year was immense.

For starters, Minot lost its Top 7 point getters from a season ago. Those guys — Miroslav Mucha, Grant Loven, Austin Dollimer, Alex Adams, Nolan Sawchuk, Michael Talbot and Colby Enns — accounted for 266 points (87 goals and 179 assists) during the 2017-18 regular season.

What was left over from a season ago where a handful of role players that needed to step up. They have.

Five out of Minot’s Top 6 point getters so far this season got some ice time with the team last season.

David Raisanen and Keenan Lund lead the way this season with 23 points, both have played in all 27 games. Last season in the regular season, Raisanen played in 34 games and collected eight points (four goals and four assists). Lund was a little more productive with 18 points (eight goals and 10 assists) in 46 games.

Other notable returners who already have more points now than all of last season include Kangas (15 to 18 points) Taylor Lantz (18 to 21), Lincoln Erne (17 to 19) and Fritz Belisle (14 to 16).

Swedish delights

Coming from the same homeland of Sweden, Didrik Henbrant and Wilmer Skoog were drafted on opposite sides of the spectrum by the Minotauros in the 2018 NAHL Entry Draft. Henbrant was an early selection in the first round (No. 9 overall) and Skoog was given his new home when the Minotauros drafted him with their last pick in the 10th round (No. 225 overall).

The Swedish duo have proven that draft stock doesn’t mean much.

Both have been key contributors. Henbrant leads the team with 11 goals and has nine assists for 20 points. Skoog currently has eight goals (three on the power play) and 10 assists for 18 points.

Stopping pucks

Goaltenders Nicholas Grabko and Ben Garrity have shared time between the pipes for the Minotauros. Both have similar numbers with Grabko starting eight more games. Minot has given up 73 goals this season, fifth most in the division.

Grabko (11-5-0) holds a 2.63 goals against average with a 91.5 save percentage. Garrity (5-4-1) sits at a 2.71 goals against average and a 91.2 save percentage.

Defensemen Erne and Spencer Kimball have the best plus/minus ratio on the team with a plus-11 and plus-9, respectively.

Back on the ice

The Minotauros return to action this Thursday (7:05 p.m.) and Friday (8:05 p.m.) with a pair of home games at Maysa Arena against the Central Division leading Aberdeen Wings.

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