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5 reasons why the Austin Bruins are in first place at the one-third mark of the season

One-third of the way into the season, the Austin Bruins have control of the NAHL Central Division. There's not one singular reason for the team's success. The positive attitude and a belief that they're going to win every night starts with the team's leaders and has trickled down through the rest of the roster.

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Austin Bruins defenseman Jimmy Goffredo, a 6-foot, 190-pound rookie from Mount Laurel, N.J., is fifth among all North American Hockey League defensemen in scoring, with 14 points through the team's first 18 games. The play of Austin's defensive corps is a big reason why the team is in first place in the NAHL Central Division.
Photo courtesy of the North American Hockey League
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AUSTIN — Nearly one-third of the way into the North American Hockey League season, the Austin Bruins sit solidly atop the Central Division standings.

Austin enter tonight’s home game at Riverside Arena against the North Iowa Bulls with a 12-2-4 record, a five-point lead in the division and two games in hand over second-place Aberdeen.

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The Bruins have lost in regulation just twice this season and have earned at least a point in eight consecutive games.

While more than 40 games remain in the regular season, the Bruins’ start has them in the conversation as one of the best teams in the NAHL. They have the fourth-best points percentage in the league (percentage of possible points earned) at .778 and the fourth-best goal differential at plus-16.

Here are 5 reasons why the Austin Bruins are in first place in the Central Division at the one-third mark of the season:

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1. Veteran Presence

Austin leads the division in goals per game, with a 3.3 average through 18 games.

A big reason for that production is that the Bruins’ leaders have been their leaders; the veterans on the team have been their top scorers.

Five of their top seven scorers are second- or third-year players, including leading scorer Austin Salani (6-11–17) and second-leading scorer Walter Zacher (9-6–15). Veterans Damon Furuseth (3-8–11), Gavin Morrissey (2-9–11) and captain Jack Malinski (1-10–11) are also among that group.

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Austin Salani

“That’s very important for us,” Bruins head coach Steve Howard said. “We’ve never built a team here with a bunch of one-and-dones. … We have a few 20-year-olds every year, but here in Austin we’ve developed guys, had a lot of (young) players. My first year here we had six guys going to Austin High School.

“It’s nice when we have players come back (for second or third seasons). They get to know the community, and the youth hockey players and people here get to know them. They get comfortable here and develop into good hockey players and human beings.”

The Bruins’ veteran leaders have been among their most consistent players on the ice, as well as in the locker room.

Salani has recorded at least one point in 11 of 18 games, Zacher has points in seven of the past nine games, and Morrissey has 10 points in the past eight games. A second-year Bruin, Morrissey has already matched his points total from last season and he has come up big in key situations; he leads the NAHL with four shootout goals.

2. ‘D’ doing some work

Howard was a defenseman during his playing days, so he holds the Bruins’ defensive corps to a high standard, and he enjoys it a bit more when they live up to that standard.

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So far, so good.

The Bruins have had a great mix on the blue line this season of young players and veterans, of scorers and shut-down defensemen.

The contributions of players such as Jimmy Goffredo (6-8–14, fifth among all NAHL rookies in scoring and fifth among all NAHL defensemen in scoring), Malinski and rookie Matthew Desiderio (2-7–9) are obvious by looking at the scoresheet on a nightly basis.

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Nate Looft

It takes a closer look, though, to realize just how valuable players such as first-year Bruins Nate Looft (an alternate captain), Bryan Gilman, Ashton Bynum, Parker Anderson and Giuseppe Fiorillo have been to the team’s hot start.

It starts with the mental and physical toughness — the willingness to do whatever it takes for the team to win — displayed by Looft, a Mankato native, and Gilman. That duo played together last season for the LaRonge Ice Wolves in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, where they came to be known as the “Bash Brothers.”

“They’re two interesting cats, that’s for sure,” Howard said with a chuckle. “They’re fun to watch. They take a lot of pride in blocking shots and defending hard. That’s rubbing off on the young guys — Fiorillo, Anderson, Bynum — they all take pride in those things.

“Those guys defend hard and don’t like getting beat. … Those guys are contagious; it’s great for them to feed off each other.”

3. ‘We’ before ‘me’

During his five-plus seasons in Austin, Howard has rarely raved so much about the cohesiveness the Bruins have in the locker room.

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One example involves the leadership of the Bash Brothers, Looft and Gilman, and how they’ve taken the team’s young defensemen under their wings.

It’s no accident that Desiderio, the team’s youngest player (17 years, 3 months) lives with the same billet family as Looft, the team’s oldest player (20 years, 10 months). The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Desiderio — who has already received a handful of inquiries from Division I coaches — is learning on and off the ice from Looft and other veterans.

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Matthew Desiderio

“We have Desiderio on the power play now and he’s learning a lot about the offensive side of the game and quite a bit of the defensive part, too,” Howard said. “It’s been fun to bring that whole back end along, just seeing what (assistant coach) Justin Fisher is doing with them, their skills.”

It helps that everyone, be it forwards or defensemen, has gotten involved in the scoring. The Bruins have thirteen players with five or more points.

“It’s nice to see a team so closely knit together in that locker room,” Howard said. “They’re all good kids, too. We’re having fun with it right now and just trying to steer the ship and make sure the guys are all doing the right things.”

4. A net gain

Austin entered the season with a no-doubt No. 1 option in goal, second-year veteran Ethan Robertson. The Curtis, Ontario, native has lived up to the expectations, posting a 1.76 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage (both third-best in the NAHL) while posting a 6-1-2 record.

What has been somewhat of a surprise is that the Bruins have a second goalie who has been equally impressive — Trent Wiemken, a Fargo, N.D., native who took the rare path to the NAHL of not being drafted or tendered, making the team as a free agent in Austin’s summer tryout camp.

While Robertson battled some injuries and illnesses, Wiemken seized the opportunity to be the Bruins’ starter. He was thrust into action Oct. 21 and 22 when Austin traveled to Bismarck for the first two games of a six-game road trip. Wiemken was outstanding, stopping 67 of 72 shots faced as Austin swept the two-game series.

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Wiemken

“Trent is learning from Ethan and Ethan is feeding off our locker room,” Howard said. “They’ve both stepped up to the plate and done really well. When you look at us building from the back end on out, that’s what we try to do.”

Wiemken has the identical 6-1-2 record as Robertson, posting a 2.25 GAA and a .919 save percentage.

Wiemken was spotted by Rochester Grizzlies assistant coach Tyler Veen, a Fargo native who has scouted eastern North Dakota for the Grizzlies and Bruins. Wiemken showed up at the Bruins tryout camp with no guarantees, and he blew the coaching staff away.

“He’s been playing really well, building confidence in himself and earning the confidence of the players in front of him,” Howard said. “That’s so important for the guys in front of you to know you’ll be there.

“Trent came into camp and he was the best goalie there, bottom line. … We had some good goalies here. Trent kind of outshined everybody. And then he had a really good preseason. He was a little nervous in his first few (regular season) games and you can see the joy he has now playing the game.”

5. Many ways to win

The Bruins started the season by sweeping their four games at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine in mid-September.

That’s when they started learning how to win in different ways. They’ve won by wide margins. They’ve won one-goal games in the final minute. They’ve won in overtime and shootouts. They’ve also saved valuable points in the standings by getting close games to overtime.

Austin has been outshot just six times in 18 games and the Bruins have outshot their opponent by 10 or more on five occasions.

Simply put, it hasn’t mattered how they’ve done it, but they’ve figured out ways to win. And because of that, the Bruins never feel like they’re out of a game.

“That’s the secret to any sport,” Howard said. “It’s like, you don’t have the right recipe or formula other than, it’s a belief in the locker room that you’re going to win. Look at the Minnesota Vikings right now. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing, they’ve found ways to win. Our group right now, that’s what they’re doing.”

Jason Feldman is the sports editor of the Post Bulletin. In addition to managing the four-person sports staff at the PB, Jason covers high school football, golf and high school and junior hockey. Readers can reach Jason at 507-281-7430 or jfeldman@postbulletin.com.
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