Playoff berth in reach for Minotauros

Minotauros notebook: Peaking at the right time

The Minot Minotauros can clinch their seventh straight playoff appearance with a pair of victories (maybe even less with some help around the league) this weekend at Maysa Arena.

Riding a four-game win streak and a 14-3-0 record since Jan. 12, the Minotauros (32-19-1) are one of the hottest teams in the NAHL right now with eight games left in the regular season.

Over the last 10 games, only one team has a better record than Minot’s 8-2-0 mark: Midwest Division leading Fairbanks Ice Dogs at 8-1-1.

A pair of gutsy extra time wins over the Bismarck Bobcats last week has the Minotauros (65 points) holding second place in the Central Division standings with the Austin Bruins (62 points) lurking three points back with two more games in hand.

The Bobcats (61 points) occupy the fourth in final playoff spot. The Minnesota Wilderness have slipped in recent weeks and are on the outside looking in with 51 points. The Brookings Blizzard (22 points) haven’t been a factor all season.

At the top, the Aberdeen Wings (81 points) have run away from the rest of the division and can lock up their second straight Central Division regular season title with a win this weekend.

Wings coming to town

The Minotauros have a chance to prolong the Wings’ celebration, as Aberdeen comes to Minot this weekend looking to put the finishing touches on the regular season title and lock up the No. 1 seed in the division.

After hosting the division leaders, the Minotauros will then travel to Aberdeen the following week for two more games.

The Wings currently lead the season series 5-2-1.

Aberdeen forward Brad Belisle, a Bemidji State commit and no relation to Minotauros’ captain Fritz Belisle, is having a breakout season and leads the Central Division in points with 31 goals and 31 assists.

Forwards John Sladic (17 goals, 35 assists) and Joe Strada (13 goals, 37 assists) have also put together 50-point seasons for the Wings.

In net, go-to goaltender Matt Vernon has the most wins in the NAHL with a daunting 35-8-3 record, 1.93 goals against average and a 93.4 save percentage. He also leads the league with six shutouts — one coming against the Tauros on Dec. 13.

Puck drop on Friday and Saturday is set for 7:35 p.m. at Maysa Arena.

Sharing the wealth

Nine different Minotauros have scored 10 or more goals this season.

Second-year veteran David Raisanen leads the charge with 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists).

Swedish NAHL newcomers Didrik Henbrant (17 goals, 19 assists) and Wilmer Skoog (16 goals, 27 assists) have also been key contributors, especially recently.

Henbrant has five goals in his last four games, including the overtime winner against Bismarck on Saturday as well as the game-winning shootout goal last Wednesday. Skoog had the primary assist on Henbrant’s overtime goal and also scored a shootout goal.

Also over 30 points this season are forwards Keenan Lund, Taylor Lantz, Andrew Kangas and defenseman Lincoln Erne.

Special teams turbulent

The Minotauros have been better at playing a man down than with a man advantage.

Minot is ranked second in the league with a 86 percent penalty kill (27 goals against out of 193 opportunities), while being fifth worst on the power play at 14.9 percent (32 out of 215).

Through four games in March so far, the Minotauros are 2-for-13 on the power play with Fritz Belisle and Skoog scoring the goals. At that same time, Minot has held its opponents to 1-for-10 on the power play.

Central Star of the Week

Minotauros goaltender Nicholas Grabko stayed composed under pressure last week against the Bismarck Bobcats to earn Central Division Player of the Week honors from the NAHL.

He stopped 67 of a possible 69 shots, along with four shootout saves.

Doing so, Grabko outdueled Bismarck’s John Roberts, who was named the NAHL’s Goaltender of the Month in February.

It’s a step in the right direction for the 5-foot-11 goaltender, who has had an up-and-down season so far with a 18-10-0 record, 2.57 goals against average and a 91.7 save percentage.

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