Minotauros host rival Bismarck to open Robertson Cup playoffs

Alex Eisen/MDN Minotauros defenseman Levi Kleiboer skates with the puck in an NAHL game played last weekend at Maysa Arena.

A year ago, the Minot Minotauros used the momentum of barely making the NAHL Robertson Cup playoffs to defy the odds and reach the championship game.

While getting into the postseason this time around was by far less stressful, the Minotauros are hoping this year’s late regular season push — going 8-2-2 since March 1 — can help rekindle that same energy the team found last April.

“The key word is momentum,” Minotauros head coach Marty Murray said. “Last year, we played good hockey down the stretch to get in the playoffs. This year, we kind of did the same thing. We had to play good hockey down the stretch to get the home ice (advantage) in the first round. It’s kind of similar with us having a lot to play for (at the end of the regular season) in both seasons.”

Riding a four-game winning streak into the playoffs, the Central Division No. 2-seeded Minotauros (36-21-3) open the 2019 Robertson Cup playoffs against a division rival, the No. 3-seeded Bismarck Bobcats (34-21-5).

The Bobcats are returning to the postseason for the first time in three years. The Minotauros, on the other hand, are making their seventh straight playoff appearance.

These two teams have only met once before in the playoffs with the Minotauros sweeping a best-of-five first round series back in 2015.

Minot can put a stranglehold on another possible Bismarck sweep, as they host Game 1 and Game 2 of the best-of-five series this weekend at Maysa Arena.

“We worked hard to get home ice in the first round,” Murray said. “We got to take advantage of that and make sure we come out ready to skate.”

Predicting who will step up for the Minotauros could best be decided by blindly drawing a name out of a hat. In the regular season, 13 different Minotauros averaged at least half a point per game (minimum 35 games played).

Minot’s top six forwards all produced 40 points or more. The next trio of forwards finished with 33 and 32 points with defenseman Lincoln Erne right in the mix with 34 points.

The Minotauros share the puck.

“We have a lot of depth with three lines that could almost be considered first lines on any given night,” Murray said. “The biggest thing is we need all of them. One of those lines can’t take a night off because it will limit our chances. It’s been scoring by committee.”

Minot’s leading scorer and point producer is David Raisanen (24 goals, 26 assists). The 50 points ranks tied for 31st in the NAHL. Raisanen has postseason experience as well with two goals and two assists in last year’s Robertson Cup run.

“Last year, (Raisanen) was in and out of the lineup,” Murray said. “Now he leads us in scoring with 50 points. We also knew he could do that.”

Other notable offensive threats Bismarck needs to be wary of, and it’s a rather long list, are: Keenan Lund (18 goals, 31 assists), Wilmer Skoog (18, 29), Taylor Lantz (15, 29), Andrew Kangas (19, 22), Didrik Henbrant (19, 21), Justin Kelly (15, 18) and captain Fritz Belisle (17, 15).

“We started off pretty good (in the regular season) and then went through a slump that everybody goes through,” said Lantz, who does a lot of his damage on the power play with 18 points coming on the man advantage. “We are happy that we did it early enough where we could still get second place (in the Central Division).”

The Minotauros’ defense is anchored by Erne with the aid of veteran Connor McGinnis and first-year players Nick Strom and Levi Kleiboer.

“We are feeling good,” said Kleiboer, who has committed to play Division I hockey at the University of Maine next season. “Got on a hot streak to end the regular season and hopefully we can take that momentum into the playoffs.”

Between the pipes, Nicholas Grabko and Ben Garrity have split time with Grabko getting six more starts. Garrity has the slightly better numbers — 2.52 goals against average compared to 2.68, and a 91.7 save percentage to a 91.3 — but Grabko bolsters the better record (20-11-1) and posted three more shutouts.

For Bismarck, goaltender John Roberts could singlehandedly steal away victories for the Bobcats. Roberts (28-17-4) comes in with 2.40 goals against average and a 92.5 save percentage.

“I think it’s going to come down to the minor things with goaltending being a big (thing),” Murray said. “They have a strong goalie, but we feel comfortable with our goaltenders. Special teams and discipline also seem to pop up in series like this.”

Adam Stacho (17 goals, 34 assists), Sam Malinski (14, 31), Alex Pollock (13, 30) and Austin Jouppi (14, 27) headline the Bobcats’ offensive firepower.

“We just have to come out and work hard as a team,” Lantz said. “When nobody cares who gets the credit, that works well.”

Puck drop for Game 1 is at 7:35 p.m. tonight at Maysa Arena. Game 2 on Saturday will also be at 7:35 p.m. in Minot. The best-of-five series shifts to Bismarck for Game 3 on April 19 and Game 4 (if needed) on April 20. Game 5 (if needed) would be back in Minot on April 22 at 7:05 p.m.

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