One win from a title: Austin Bruins reach Robertson Cup final for first time in 8 years
Josh Giuliani, Walter Zacher and Dylan Cook had two points apiece, and Trent Wiemken made 28 saves to lift the Austin Bruins past the Maryland Black Bears on Sunday and into Tuesday's NAHL national championship game.
BLAINE — The eight-year wait is over.
But the Austin Bruins have one more to go to reach their ultimate goal — and it won’t be easy.
Then again, nothing has come easily for the Bruins this season. They’ve won 42 games, as well as regular-season and postseason championships in the North American Hockey League Central Division.
And after a hard-fought 4-2 victory Sunday against the Maryland Black Bears in Game 3 of a hard-fought, physical Robertson Cup national semifinal series at Fogerty Arena, the Bruins are a win away from hanging the banner they’ve been craving since the start of the season nearly nine months ago.
To earn that last banner, Austin (42-17-11) will have to go through the top-seeded Oklahoma Warriors in the NAHL Robertson Cup national championship game at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It’s a task the Bruins are excited for, though, after a tough semifinal series.
“Up and down, all across the ice this series was a battle, it was full-on war,” said Bruins first-year forward Dylan Cook, who had two assists in Sunday’s win. “It was pretty eye-opening. We were ready for it, we were getting beaten up a little bit, but that’s all part of playoff hockey. That’s the fun of it.”
For the eighth time in 10 games, the Bruins scored the first goal of the night, leading goal-scorer Walter Zacher finishing a nice feed from Cook just 1:38 into the game.
“It’s so crucial,” Cook said of getting the first goal. “For the most part, too, in a handful of our games we’ve scored them in the first 3 minutes, too. If you can do that, the crowd gets into it, you get into it. You’re up a goal and there’s still more than 17 minutes to go in the first period, it gives you that little extra to your step.”
After Maryland’s Trey Scott tied it late in the first, Josh Giuliani put Austin up for good 3:43 into the second, putting back the rebound of a Cook shot. Giuliani then set up Austin Salani 3:19 into the third for what held up as the game-winning goal. Matt Desiderio added an insurance goal late in the third.
Austin is in the Robertson Cup Final for the third time in franchise history, having lost 2-out-of-3 series against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs (2014) and Minnesota Wilderness (2015) in their previous attempts. Giuliani said the Bruins are grateful to have a chance to keep the Robertson Cup in Austin for the first time.
“They’re all big games, we just have to go out there and play, stick to our identity,” Giuliani said, “and that’s what we’ll do Tuesday.”
As they have done all year, the Bruins found a way to rally after losing a game. They beat Maryland handily in Game 1, winning 4-0 while going 2-for-3 on the power play. The Black Bears flipped that script in Game 2, beating Austin 2-1 and holding the Bruins to an 0-for-6 night on the power play.
In Game 3, Austin found its game again. It was outshot 30-28, but limited the Black Bears to a pair of quirky goals.
“Maryland’s a great team and it was a hard three games,” Giuliani said. “They came hard at us every single game and we responded to it and handled it very well.”
And it found a spot in the national championship game. The Bruins will have two more days to spend in Blaine. And a chance to check the one box that still sits empty on the list of goals they created nine months ago.
A challenge ahead
The Oklahoma Warriors (52-14-2 overall) had the best record in the NAHL in the regular season and they’ve carried that dominance over to the postseason, where they’re unbeaten in eight games. They dispatched the Minnesota Wilderness in two consecutive games to win their national semifinal series and have outscored their opponents 33-13 in the postseason.
Oklahoma is led by the 2022-23 NAHL MVP, forward Joey Delgreco, a Grand Rapids native and Augustana University commit who has six goals and 10 postseason points after a 22-goal, 69-point regular season.
In goal, Slovakia native Daniel Duris has been phenomenal, posting a 6-0-0 record with a 0.98 goals-against average and a .959 save percentage.
The Warriors haven’t been flawless, though. They were pushed to overtime by the Amarillo Wranglers in Game 3 of an NAHL South Division semifinal series, then were taken to double-overtime by the Shreveport Mudbugs in Game 3 of the South Division Finals. Oklahoma was also swept in the final series of the regular season, falling 6-3 and 4-1 against the New Mexico Ice Wolves, a team that didn’t qualify for the NAHL playoffs.
How They Scored
• Austin 1, Maryland 0. Walter Zacher (Dylan Cook) 1:38. On the second shift of the game, Cook gets the puck to Zacher in the low right circle and he slides it past Black Bears goalie William Hakansson. It’s the eighth time in 10 playoff games the Bruins score first.
• Austin 1, Maryland 1. Trey Scott (Brayden Stannard, Branden Piku) 18:32. The Bruins can’t clear the puck during a scramble in front of the net. It slides to Scott, who sends a soft backhand shot to the net from the slot. Wiemken loses sight of it in the crowd of bodies and it flutters into the net.
• Austin 2, Maryland 1. Josh Giuliani (Cook) 3:43. Cook drives hard to the net and attempts to stuff it past Hakansson. The rebound pops right to Giuliani, who buries it far side for a power-play goal.
• Austin 3, Maryland 1. Austin Salani (Giuliani, Damon Furuseth) 3:36. After having the puck poked off his stick, Giuliani recovers and drops a pass for Salani, who is cutting to the net. He picks his head up for a split second then snaps it past Hakansson for a 3-1 lead.
• Austin 3, Maryland 2. Riley Ruh (Unassisted) 10:21. Ruh is credited with a power-play goal after an Austin defenseman attempted to play the puck along the boards, it hit an uneven spot in the boards and bounced directly past Bruins goalie Trent Wiemken.
• Austin 4, Maryland 2. Matt Desiderio (Zacher) 15:06. Desiderio seals the victory with his second goal of the postseason, converting a feed from Zacher with less than five minutes to play.
PB’s 3 Stars
• No. 1: Josh Giuliani, Austin. The first-year forward scored a go-ahead goal early in the second period and assisted on Austin Salani’s game-winning goal early in the third..
• No. 2: Dylan Cook, Austin. Another first-year forward, Cook assisted on the Bruins’ first two goals, to give his team early boosts in each of the first two periods.
• No. 3: Walter Zacher, Austin. The Bruins all-time leader in goals in a season scored his eighth of the postseason 1:38 into the game, then assisted on Matt Desiderio’s late insurance goal.
BRUINS 4, BLACK BEARS 2
Austin 1-1-2 — 4
Maryland 1-0-1 — 2
First period — 1. AUS, Walter Zacher 8 (Dylan Cook 8) 1:38. 2. MRD, Trey Scott 1 (Brayden Stannard 7, Branden Piku 11) 18:32. Second period — 3. AUS, Josh Giuliani 3 (Cook 9) 3:43 (pp). Third period — 4. AUS, Austin Salani 6 (Giuliani 4, Damon Furuseth 4) 3:36. 5. MRD, Riley Ruh 3 (unassisted) 10:19 (pp). 6. AUS, Matt Desiderio 2 (Zacher 4) 15:06.
Shots on goal — AUS 8-12-8 — 28; MRD 12-5-13 — 30. Goalies — MRD, William Hakansson (L, 7-3-0; 24 saves-28 shots); AUS, Trent Wiemken (W, 8-1-1; 28 saves-30 shots). Power-play opportunities — AUS 1-for-4; MRD 1-for-5. Penalties — AUS 5-10 minutes; MRD 4-8 minutes.
ROBERTSON CUP SEMIFINALS
(Best 2 out of 3)
AUSTIN vs. MARYLAND
Game 1, Friday, May 19: Austin 4, Maryland 0
Game 2, Saturday, May 20: Maryland 2, Austin 1
Game 3, Sunday, May 21: Austin 4, Maryland 2 (Bruins win series 2-1)
• • • • •
MINNESOTA vs. OKLAHOMA
Game 1, Friday, May 19: Oklahoma 4, Minnesota 2
Game 2, Saturday, May 20: Oklahoma 3, Minnesota 1 (Warriors win series 2-0)
• • • • •
ROBERTSON CUP CHAMPIONSHIP
Tuesday, May 23
Austin Bruins (42-17-11) vs. Oklahoma Warriors (52-14-2), 7 p.m.