Eight months ago, the NAHL regular season began with all 23 teams in the league competing in the NAHL Showcase at the Schwan’s Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota. This weekend, just one 15-minute left turn and two miles down Highway 65 at Fogerty Arena, the league is down to just four teams remaining, each vying to take home the Robertson Cup as the league’s champion.
The Robertson Cup finals kicks off today with a pair of best-of-three semifinal match-ups between the league’s four division winners, followed by a winner-take-all championship game on Monday evening.
In the first semifinal, with puck drop scheduled for 4:30pm CST on Friday and Saturday(3pm Sunday, if necessary), it is the Midwest Division champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs taking on the Central Division champion, the Minot Minotauros.
The second semifinal, schedule for 7:30pm CST(6pm Sunday, if necessary), features the Eastern Division champs Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights vs. South Division champions the Shreveport Mudbugs.
Monday’s championship game is schedule to face-off at 7pm.
It should be an exciting weekend of hockey between four very good junior hockey teams as they compete to win a championship.
Quick capsules on each of the four teams:
Fairbanks Ice Dogs
Regular season: 1st place, Midwest Division
Playoffs: Defeated Minnesota Magicians 3-0, Janesville Jets 3-2
Goalie: ‘98 Josh Benson, 1.91/.918
Top players: ‘97 F Hunter Wendt(Ferris State), ‘98 F Jax Murray, ‘98 F Samuel Ruffin(UAF)
Regular Season: 4th place, Central Division
Playoffs: Defeated Aberdeen 3-2, Austin 3-0
Goalie: ‘97 Samu Lonkila, 2.46/.918
Top players: ‘97 Miroslav Mucha(LSSU), ‘97 D Nolan Sawchuk(UML), ‘99 D Colby Enns(UNO), ‘97 F Alex Adams(BSU)
Regular Season: 1st place, South Division
Playoffs: Defeated Corpus Christi 3-2, Lone Star 3-2
Goalie: ‘97 Jaxon Castor(Arizona State) 1.50/.931
Top Players: ‘97 F Ryan Burnett, ‘97 F Jordan Fader, ‘97 D Dominick Procopio(UML)
Regular Season: 3rd place, East Division
Playoffs: Defeated New Jersey 3-2, Philadelphia 3-0
Goalie: ‘00 Christian Stoever 3.26/.902
Top Players: ‘98 F Jack Olmstead(Michigan), ‘98 F Reed Robinson(Niagara), ‘99 F Tyrone Bronte(BSU), ’00 D Luke Robinson
Fairbanks has to be considered a heavy favorite in the first series against Minot. The Ice Dogs won their division and prevailed over a really, really good Janesville team in the playoffs. History is on their side as well, winning two out of the last four Robertson Cups. They’re as close to a dynasty as you’re likely to see in a league that has the type of annual roster turnover the NAHL does. Meanwhile, the Tauros were the last team to qualify for the playoffs in their division, and they barely squeaked past Aberdeen in the first round of the playoffs.
I wouldn’t read too much into Minot’s regular season record though. They were in an incredibly tight division where anyone could win on any given night. In the playoffs, they happened to get great goaltending from Samu Lonkila—a .943 save percentage after a .918 regular season—and that was enough to put them over the edge when it counted.
They’ll likely need a similar performance or better from Lonkila this weekend to have a chance against a Fairbanks team that is always strong offensively and deadly on the power play. I see two close games, but I think there’s just too much talent on Fairbanks and the Ice Dogs will sweep.
The second series between Shreveport and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton should be much tighter. It’s similar to the first series in that a team that won their division in the regular season, Shreveport, is facing a team that started the playoffs on the road, in East Division third place finished Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Like Minot, WBS’ playoff run came on the back of some incredible late-season goaltending. Draft eligible Christian Stoever went through the regular season with a non-descript .902 save percentage, but has stopped .951 in the playoffs.
The Mudbugs are strong in goal, as well, picking up Arizona State commit Jaxon Castor midway through the year from Dubuque in the USHL, and he has been stellar. posting a save percentage over .925 since joining the team.
This should be a tough, physical low-scoring affair, and is probably the more likely series to go three games. I’ll take Shreveport, with the more experience junior goalie in net, to win the series in three games.
That would create a Fairbanks vs. Shreveport final. With the championship decided by just a single game, anything could happen, but it’s hard to pick against Fairbanks, given the success they’ve had in recent years.