The chase is over.
And a merry chase it was. The Bismarck Bobcats doggedly pursued a playoff berth until the penultimate game of the regular season.
Bismarck’s hopes of a NAHL playoff berth were finally dashed Friday night at the VFW Sports Center in a 5-3 loss to the Austin Bruins.
The two teams, now out of playoff contention, will wrap up their seasons tonight at 7:15.
This is the first season in Layne Sedevie’s eight years as head coach that the Bobcats will not be in the playoff hunt for the Robertson Cup.
“It’s frustrating, that’s for sure,” Sedevie said.
But, he added, there’s good reason to look ahead.
“I’m optimistic. I like a lot of the pieces we have coming back. … I think we have a lot of good hockey players in that (locker) room,” he observed.
Sedevie said Friday’s setback was a case of “too little, too late.”
Indeed, Austin goalie Jake Kucharski was working on a shutout, holding a 4-0 lead halfway through the third period.
The Bobcats’ Nick Alexander finally broke Kucharski’s spell with 8:50 to play stuffing in a rebound on Jared Resseguie’s blast from the left point with 8:50 remaining.
Down 4-1, Sedevie pulled goalie Severi Isokangas in lieu of another attacker, and the move paid almost immediate dividends. Nineteen seconds after Isokangas left the ice, Tobias Fladeby beat Kucharski on a blast from the slot with 2:22 on the clock.
Then, with the Bobcats still playing without a netminder, Jordan Fralich made it 4-3, redirecting Chase Hartje’s blast from the top of the slot past Kucharski with a minute to play.
That proved to be Bismarck’s final gasp, however. The Bobcats’ final shot was blocked, and Austin’s Travis Kothenbeutel hit an empty net with 12 seconds remaining in the game.
A first period that was fairly even statistically belonged to Austin. The Bruins managed just a 10-8 shot advantage, but enjoyed all of the prime scoring opportunities.
Quinn Martin got the Bruins started at 7:42 of the first period, rifling a shot past from the middle of the right circle. Martin was set up on a cross-ice pass from Evan Cholak.
Martin’s goal followed by seconds a missed opportunity by Kothenbeutel who, left momentarily alone in the low slot, fired wide to the right with 7:21 expired.
Austin went ahead 2-0 in the closing seconds of the first period. Defenseman Joe Kinsella, charging up the right side, slammed on the brakes and threaded a bad-angle shot from the right goal line past Isokangas at 19:42.
A rebound goal gave the Bruins a 3-0 lead midway through the second period. Isokangas made a chest save on a blast by Kinsella from the right circle, and Dante Zapata was right there at the goal mouth to clean up the carom with 10:47 expired.
Jack Murphy made it 4-0 from short range in the middle of the third period, converting Justin Misiak’s pass from the right corner at 9:40.
Less than two minutes later, the Bobcats came to life.
“I thought we played pretty well the last 40 minutes, but the first 20 weren’t good,” Sedevie said.
Sedevie said there were two ways to look at the Bobcats’ offensive shortcomings through the first two periods.
“I don’t think we were moving our feet, or maybe they were outworking us,” he said.
The third period was another matter, however, as the Bobcats outshot Austin 21-10.
Martin, an 18-year-old forward who joined Austin in February from Red Deer, Alberta of the Western Canada Hockey League, said the Bruins had plenty of motivation to play well on Friday even though the playoffs are out of reach.
“These are the last games together as a team. We said to each other ‘let’s have a good memory of our last weekend together,’” Martin said. “We wanted to finish off strong as a team.”
Martin said there were two reasons the Bruins held sway through two periods.
“Definitely forechecking is the biggest thing. Forechecking runs everything,” he noted. “… And defense. Our coach (Kyle Grabowski) said he didn’t want any turnovers in the neutral zone. … Getting it across the red line was the main thing.”
Austin improved to 23-27-9 with the victory. The Bobcats slipped under .500 at 28-29-2.