4 things to watch as Austin Bruins begin defense of NAHL Central championship

Sep. 12—It's been nearly a decade since the Austin Bruins had such a short offseason. But advancing to the North American Hockey League championship game, the Robertson Cup, means Austin's season went into late May.

"It didn't feel like we had an offseason," Bruins seventh-year head coach Steve Howard said. "It definitely hurt the golf game ... but I'd do it again."

The Bruins start down that path — attempting to win another Central Division title and return to the Robertson Cup — this week at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine. Austin's season opener is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday against Philadelphia at the National Sports Center.

Here are 4 Things to Watch as the Bruins begin a new season:

Trent Wiemken started last season as a bit of an unknown, a backup goalie who played his way onto the Bruins' roster in their summer tryout camp.

He ended the season by backstopping them to the Robertson Cup. In between, Wiemken won 26 games and put the team on his back, leading it to its first playoff series win since 2018, and its first postseason Central Division title since 2015.

Many within the Bruins' organization thought Wiemken would, at the very least, get an opportunity with a USHL team this fall. That opportunity didn't come, and while disappointed for Wiemken, the Bruins couldn't be happier to have him back.

Along with Matt MacArthur — who joined the team in the final week of the regular season last spring — the Bruins expect goaltending to be a strength. The Bruins also gave Rochester Grizzlies goalie Nick Kurtiak — who backstopped Flint Powers Catholic to a Michigan high school state title last season — a look in a preseason game.

"It needs to be (a strength) if we're going to have a successful year," Howard said. "That's the most important position. ... Trent has earned his right, he's earned the net and we expect big things out of him. We certainly think MacArthur can do it, as well. Trent has obviously proven himself; we just need to play hard in front of him."

While Wiemken and MacArthur return to anchor the Bruins' back end, many other players who were key to the team's title run are not back — the price to pay for being a title-contending team.

Veterans Jack Malinski, Bryan Gilman and Nate Looft aged out of junior hockey, while Matt Desiderio and Jimmy Goffredo are with USHL teams this fall. Still, a solid core of veterans return, led by Gio Fiorillo, Kaden Muir, Ashton Bynum and Parker Anderson.

"We have a good core group back there and we need some of the young guys to follow suit and learn," Howard said. "With the young guys, especially, they just need to get the experience. Many of them are coming right out of high school or AAA and the game happens a little quicker here. ... Our vets need to lead by example, make the right plays and right decisions."

Newcomer Hayden Vonk could play a big role on special teams, while Lakeville's John Novak, as well as Chris Magovern, Nathan Williams, Zack Morrisette and others will battle for roster spots and lineup spots.

"Vonk has some shiftiness and vision," Howard said, "and we really like his decision-making with the puck. Some of our other young guys just have to keep things simple."

Austin has five guys up front who Howard calls "extensions of the coaching staff." Austin Salani, Isaak Brassard, Matys Brassard, Ocean Wallace and Damon Furuseth are entering their third seasons as Bruins. They know the pain of being swept in a first-round playoff series and they know the work necessary to make a run to the championship game.

"They know the system, know how we play," Howard said. "They've been here for three years. They know exactly where to go, where to be. We hang our hat on being a hard team to play against, being heavy and in-your-face."

All of the third-year forwards fit that description.

Salani (15) and Wallace (14) were among Austin's top six goal-scorers last season, and Salani was third on the team in points (47).

Howard was asked what the Bruins veterans and coaches have done to put last season's ending behind them. The quick answer: nothing.

"I don't think putting last season behind us is something we'll preach," Howard said. "Right now, we're preaching: we fell short. We know what it takes to get there. Those (older) guys know what it took to get there, the sacrifice, the focus."

Austin fell behind 3-1 against the Oklahoma Warriors in the national championship game, only to score twice late in the second period to tie the score 3-3. Oklahoma scored a power-play goal with fewer than 4 minutes to play. Austin threw everything it had at the Warriors in the closing minute, but couldn't get the equalizer in a 4-3 loss.

"I want that to fuel them to get back there," Howard said. "I have a bad taste in my mouth, have for the last three months."