AUSTIN — The Austin Bruins have close to a dozen veterans on the roster this season.
They know what it’s like to go through the grind of a North American Hockey League season, and what it takes to go toe-to-toe with teams in the Central Division on a weekly basis. For the Bruins’ newcomers, the first five weeks of the regular season have been a crash course in that Central Division grind.
“Those tight games are what this division is all about,” Bruins head coach Steve Howard said. “You don’t have too many blowouts or too many games where a goalie is pulled. That’s what we love about the Central Division.”
Austin has battled its way nicely through the initial month of the season, posting a 5-3-2 record — including a 3-1-0 mark against defending division and NAHL champion Aberdeen — going into a series at division rival Bismarck this Friday and Saturday.
After playing their first four games of the regular season outside of the division, Austin is in a stretch of 11 consecutive games against division rivals. The Bruins head to Bismarck after a pair of close losses to division rival Minnesota Wilderness last week, including a shootout loss in which they outshot the Wilderness 38-22.
“We’ve been working on it the last few weeks in practice; we see the goal production is just not there,” Howard said of the Bruins, who average 2.1 goals per game. “It’s one thing to control a game, control the pace and have puck possession, but if we’re not scoring goals, we have to have some guys going to the net hard.
“We won’t always beat the goalie on the first shot, but if you can get those greasy goals by going to the net and finding some rebounds, good things will happen.”
While the Bruins have struggled at times to score, they have done an equally good job of limiting their opponents, allowing just 2.0 goals per game.
Goalies Zach Hansen, Jaxon Friedman and Tyler Shea have a combined 2.04 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. The trio has made it difficult on the Bruins’ coaches to determine which one will start on a given night — Friedman has played the most minutes (248), Shea has faced the most shots, while Hansen is undefeated in two starts.
“They’re doing their job, that’s for sure. They’re keeping us in games,” Howard said. “We were hoping we’d have more of a defined black-and-white line, but we don’t. That’s why all three are still here. They’re all playing well.
“We’ve been down to one goalie in the playoffs the past two years. We don’t want that to happen again. We do want to find a guy or two guys who can run with it at some point, but for now it’s three of them.”
The Bruins have shown they have some scoring depth — 16 players have recorded at least one point over the past six games — now they just need to show it consistently.
“We do want to score more goals,” Howard said, “but winning those tight games and pulling those out, those are lessons you learn during the regular season to set yourself up hopefully for the playoffs, because those are all tight games. Everyone is always doing things the right way come playoff time.”
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THIS WEEK IN JR. HOCKEY
Who: Austin Bruins at Bismarck Bobcats
When: Friday, Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
Where: VFW Sports Center, Bismarck, N.D.
Noteworthy: Austin (5-3-2) is one point back of second-place Bismarck (6-1-1) in the NAHL Central Division standings. … These are the first two of 10 meetings between the teams this season. … Bismarck plays six games at Austin, but none until Feb. 14.
Who: Rochester Grizzlies vs. Granite City
When: 7 p.m. Friday (Rochester Rec Center); 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Armadillo Sports Deck Arena, Sauk Rapids.
Noteworthy: Rochester is 8-2-0, Granite City is 6-1-1. … These are the first two of four meetings between the former West Division rivals this season. … Friday is First Responders Night at the Rec Center. First responders and their families may purchase discounted tickets for the game against Granite City.