AUSTIN, MN – The Bismarck Bobcats popped off four straight goals and clinched their fourth consecutive Central Division championship as they defeated the Austin Bruins 4-1 Saturday at Riverside Arena, winning the best-of-five game Central Division Finals 3-1.
The series victory punches the Bobcats’ ticket to their third Robertson Cup Tournament in four seasons.
“It speaks to the character of this team, because let’s be honest: that was a really good hockey team that we eliminated [in Austin],” credited Bobcats head coach and general manager Layne Sedevie, who has presided over the last three division titles, as both assistant and head coach. “To be able to go 4-0 on the road is a heck of a stat, and our guys got it done with hard work.”
It was the Bruins who got the scoring started 8:14 into the game when Chris Fischer tallied a power play goal, striking a one-timer past Bobcat netminder Aaron Nelson to put the home side ahead 1-0 and get the raucous crowd of 1,778 on its feet.
Dan Kovar helped the Bobcat power play respond late in the period, intercepting an attempted clear by Austin’s Connor Quinn and whipping a slap-pass to a wide-open Adam Knochenmus, who put it into a virtually empty net—Bruins goalie Tyler Bruggeman committed to a shot by Kovar—to even the score at 1-1 with 4:59 to go in the first.
A perfect back-door pass from Tyler Richter put the Bobcats ahead 1:06 into the second as Richter found Patrick Moore alone on the far post for a six-inch tap-in and a 2-1 score in favor of the visitors.
From there, Nelson and Bruggeman took over, combining for 20 saves over the rest of the period, including point-blank denials both ways to keep it a one-goal game after two.
In the third, Buster Hebda tacked on some big-time insurance when he blasted a back-door pass from Kovar over Bruggeman to push to the lead to 3-1 with 9:53 left in regulation.
For Hebda, who drew a lot of heat from the Austin fans all weekend including boos every time he touched the puck, it was a perfect retort to the rowdy crowd.
“That was an incredibly satisfying goal to get, for sure,” related Hebda, who has three goals and an assist in the postseason, “Bryce [Schmitt] told me during intermission that they don’t boo you unless you’re somebody, so I just used it to fire myself up.”
In a last-ditch bid at a comeback the Bruins pulled Bruggeman with less than three minutes remaining but, despite extended time on the forecheck in the offensive zone, could not put another shot on Nelson thanks to a concerted shot-and-pass-blocking effort by the Bobcat defense.
“When it came down to do-or-die, our guys laid out and sacrificed their bodies to help keep us ahead,” said Nelson, who improved his postseason GAA to 2.12 and SV% to .927 with his performance Saturday. “That barn would’ve gone crazy if [the Bruins] had put one past me and anything could’ve happened then—but our guys never let it even get to me.”
Jeremy O’Keefe finally broke up Austin’s pressure with less than a minute left and lofted a puck to center ice that Richter chased down and popped into the empty net to give the Bobcats the final margin of 4-1 with 32 seconds left in the game.
Nelson, making his sixth straight start of the playoffs, made 29 saves to improve to 5-1 on the 2012 postseason.
Bruggeman turned aside 33 stops but finished the playoffs with a 4-4 record.
The Bobcats now advance to the 2012 Robertson Cup Tournament, where they will be the #2 seed, joining fellow division champions Amarillo (South), St. Louis (Midwest), Fairbanks (West) and Port Huron (North) along with host team Texas.
Robertson Cup play opens Thursday for the Cats as they take on the Port Huron Fighting Falcons at 3:30 PM at Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco, Tex.
Thursday’s tournament opener, along with all Bobcats games at the Robertson Cup, will be broadcast locally on the radio home of Bobcat Hockey, Super Talk 1270, KLXX-AM, and worldwide on the official internet television partner of the NAHL, FASTHockey, at http://nahl.fasthockey.com. Pregame coverage gets under way at 3:00 Thursday. Fans can watch Thursday’s game—and all away contests—live at Reza’s Pitch at Third and Front in Bismarck, the official away game home of Bobcat Hockey.