Shootout win lifts Austin Bruins to first NAHL Central Division championship in 8 years

The last time the Austin Bruins won the NAHL Central Division regular season championship was 2015. The Bruins snapped that drought Saturday, beating St. Cloud to clinch the 2022-23 division title.

Austin Bruins center Gavin Morrissey (9) battles to win a faceoff against St. Cloud's Kade Peterson (16) during a North American Hockey League game at Riverside Arena in Austin on Saturday, March 25, 2023. The Bruins won the game 3-2 in a shootout to clinch the NAHL Central Division regular-season championship.
Jason Feldman / Post Bulletin

AUSTIN — Jack Malinski and Walter Zacher were here two years ago, standing on the Riverside Arena ice as the Austin Bruins season came to a painful end.

The Bruins finished one victory shy of a North American Hockey League Central Division playoff spot in that 2020-21 season, a season that started late and ran into mid-May due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Two years ago we had a great team, it was the COVID year and there were a lot of great players in this league, with guys staying back from college,” Malinski said. “It was painful, we didn’t get the job done, didn’t make the playoffs. It left a sour taste in our mouths.”

Fast forward to Saturday night, when Zacher and Malinski again stood on the Riverside Arena ice with their Bruins teammates, this time with cowbells clattering and air horns blaring from the stands, after a 3-2 shootout victory against the St. Cloud Norsemen.

While the road from May of 2021 to March of 2023 was long and dotted with occasional bumps, the trip was worth it to this crew of Bruins, who mobbed rookie goalie Trent Wiemken — after he stopped all three shots he faced in the shootout — and celebrated the franchise’s first regular-season division championship since the 2014-15 season.


“This year, we want to make a run at this thing,” said Malinski, a third-year defenseman from Lakeville South High School, who is committed to play Division I college hockey at the University of Vermont. “It’s not just get there and it’s not just get past the first round. It’s, we have to get to that final game and win that thing.”

Jack Malinski

The Bruins (33-13-8 overall) wrapped up their first NAHL Central Division regular season title under Howard, in his sixth season as the team’s head coach, and the fourth regular season title in franchise history.

Austin last won the division championship in 2015, the third of their three consecutive regular-season titles.

“It feels really good, especially coming up short that first year,” said Zacher, who is committed to Division I Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. “Last year we had a good run, getting second (in the division), but it feels good to be first and have home ice (advantage) throughout the playoffs. We’re looking forward to that coming up.”

Saturday’s win is the 33rd of the season for Austin (33-13-8 overall), which matches the most regular-season wins it has recorded in Howard’s six seasons. It’s the fifth-most wins in a regular season in team history, behind the teams of 2012-13 (42 wins), 2013-14 (40), 2014-15 (38) and 2011-12 (36). The Bruins also had 33 wins in 2017-18, Howard’s first season as head coach.

“It means a lot to get to where we are now," Howard said. "What I’m most proud of from that year — that was the COVID year — we didn’t bring in anyone who we didn’t protect (on the USA Hockey protected list). We stuck with our guys. Nothing against everybody else — they’re all trying to win a championship. They all brought in a lot of guys who were in limbo, who didn’t originally choose to play in the NAHL, guys who (originally planned) to go to Canada to play that year.

“We stuck together that year and just missed the playoffs. For (Zacher and Malinski) to go through that … and even last year, to fall short and get swept in the first round of the playoffs, it stung. I told them never to forget that. I hope all our guys remember that. I hope that’s driving us now. It’s time to turn the corner and it’s playoff mode.”

Walter Zacher

Josh Giuliani and Dylan Cook scored in regulation for Austin, and Zacher scored the lone goal of the shootout. Wiemken made 33 saves, plus three in the shootout, to improve to 18-6-3 this season.


“I had the conversation with the guys before the game, that it’s their time,” Howard said. “We’ve played 53 games, now 54. They know when they do things wrong and when they do them right. They’re tired of hearing me yell at them and I’m tired of yelling. They were resilient tonight and kept going.

“They figured out a way to win and I’m really proud of them.”

More so than adding to the franchise’s record books, Saturday’s win guarantees the Bruins will have home-ice advantage throughout the Central Division playoffs, which begin in mid-April.

Austin has six regular season games to play, including a home-and-home series against St. Cloud next weekend; Friday’s game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start at St. Cloud, with Saturday’s game set for a 7:05 p.m. start at Riverside Arena. Austin then closes the regular season with four games against the Minot (N.D.) Minotauros — April 7-8 at Minot and April 14-15 in Austin.

“It means a lot,” Malinski said. “We’re all very excited about it, but we’re not focusing on it. Playoffs are coming up, so we’re treating each game like a playoff game. We can celebrate now, but come Monday we’re back to work.”

BOX SCORE: Austin Bruins 3, St. Cloud Norsemen 2 (SO)


1. Trent Wiemken, Austin: The first-year Bruin stopped 33 of the 35 shots he faced, then all three he faced in the shootout.

2. Walter Zacher, Austin: The third-year Bruins forward just missed on a couple of chances in regulation, but didn’t miss in the shootout. Zacher scored the lone goal in the shootout, to give the Bruins the win.


3. Gavin Morrissey, Austin: The Minnesota State University, Mankato, commit, assisted on both of Austin’s goals in regulation, giving him 41 assists and 57 points this season.

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
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