Junior hockey: Austin Bruins hope to build on last year’s success
The Austin Bruins have spent more than five months thinking about two overtime goals.
That was the difference between the Bruins’ season ending in the North American Hockey League’s Central Division Finals, or it ending in the league’s championship game. Those two OT goals went against the Bruins, who lost the division finals series to Minot (N.D.), a team that then went on to play in the national championship game.
“It weighs on our guys and it motivates them,” Bruins head coach Steve Howard said. “They watched Minot go on a heck of a run. Two OT goals-against … that’s playoff hockey for you. That should inspire a team.”
Despite the two close losses in the division finals, the Bruins’ first season under Howard was certainly a success. Austin went 36-22-8 and has 14 players back this season from that team that finished second in the division.
Among Austin’s key losses are four-year Bruin Travis Kothenbeutel, who now plays Division I college hockey for Omaha; second-leading scorer Evan Cholak (Division III St. Norbert); goalies Mads Sogaard and Alex Schilling (Air Force Academy), and associate head coach Al Rooney, who has taken over as head coach and G.M. of the new NAHL franchise in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
Not much will change on the ice for the Bruins, though, as their regular season opens this week at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine. Austin played its Showcase and regular-season opener against Odessa (Texas) on Wednesday.
“Our identity won’t change,” Howard said, “especially with the number of veterans we have. We have to play with pace, be a physical, in-your-face, tough team to play against. We want to make sure there isn’t a lot of room for the other team to breathe.”
Austin has a talented core of veterans to help lead the way in re-establishing its identity as a tough team to play against. Devon Fields (6-2, 210), Josef Mysak (6-3, 205) and Lane Krenzen (5-10, 185) return as leaders on defense. Up front, the Bruins have some talented playmakers back, including third-leading scorer Andy Willis (12-28—40), Dante Zapata (4-23—27), Val Ahlberg (14-10—24) and a player whom Howard believes could be among the best in the NAHL, 5-foot-9, 175-pounder Dante Sheriff.
The Bruins acquired Sheriff in late November last year from the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks when forward Benito Posa was called up by Muskegon. Sheriff had nine goals and 20 assists in 37 games in Austin.
“He’s probably the most skilled player I’ve ever coached,” Howard said. “The kid has high-end talent. He knows he has a few things in his game to clean up, become a better 200-foot player. If he does that, he honestly could be the best player in the league if he wants to be.”
The Bruins will look at three goalies early this season – returner Kyle McClellan, 19-year-old Chicago native Andrew Farah, and recently acquired Brett Miller, who was let go by Muskegon of the USHL in a recent round of cuts.
“The preseason really helped us distinguish who can play the way we want to and who can’t,” Howard said. “We have guys who are still learning, but with the number of veterans we have, we made some good strides in the preseason and we’re excited with the group we have.”