BLAINE, MN– The culmination of the 2022-23 NAHL Season took place this past week in Blaine, Minnesota at Fogerty Arena where the four playoff division winners took to the ice to battle for the Robertson Cup. The Maryland Black Bears, winners of the East Division, took on the Austin Bruins, winners of the Central Division. In a knock-down, drag-out match that took all three games to decide, the Black Bears came up short and had their season come to a close one step from the championship game.
Game One on Friday night saw a very slow paced game between the two squads in the first few minutes. Austin’s Matys Brassard opened the scoring with a backhanded shot that deflected off a Maryland stick and behind William Hakansson for the 1-0 lead. Brassard would also notch the second goal only eight seconds into the second period, as a dump in by Austin took an odd bounce off the boards and right to a yawning cage for Brassard. While the Black Bears tried to attack, the Austin defense stood them up at the blue, not allowing much of anything for Maryland on the attack. Ocean Wallace made it 3-0 for Austin coming out from behind the net and tucking it under Hakansson. Early in the third period, Austin’s captain Jack Malinski ripped a wrister home on the power play to make it 4-0. Maryland had 16 shots in the third period, but could not find the back of the net leading them to a Game One loss.
With their backs against the wall in Game Two, Maryland responded well, putting plenty of pressure on Austin’s Trent Wiemken, but were unable to net their first goal of the final four. Down the other end, Hakansson was shining with an incredible bounce-back game, making big stops in the first to keep Maryland in it. In the second period and with a carryover power play, Maryland struck as Riley Ruh got on the board tipping in a centering feed from Branden Piku to make it 1-0 Black Bears. Only 3:12 later did they strike again when Brayden Stannard, who was injured for Game One, picked up a loose puck on a delayed penalty call and ripped it through Wiemken to make it 2-0. Austin would put up pressure, but Hakansson was equal to the task, keeping his sheet clean through 40. Austin would get on the board early with Walter Zacher notching a goal to make it 2-1, but the Black Bears were blocking shots in front of Hakansson and those that got through didn’t go in, as Hakansson made 34 saves to even the series up.
In the all-decisive Game Three, Maryland would go down early with Zacher scoring in the first two minutes of the game to give Austin the early lead. Maryland woke up in the second half of the period, putting their physical game on display. The Black Bears were persistent on the puck, resulting in Trey Scott putting a backhanded shot from the slot over Wiemken to tie the score with under 90 seconds remaining in the period. The second period saw Austin convert on a power play, albeit controversially, when Josh Giuliani put home a rebound from a Dylan Cook shot with Cook bumping into Hakansson from his initial shot. Hakansson would bounce back, as some turnovers led to breakaways, but the Swede was strong in saving those one-on-one attempts and kept the score at 2-1. In the third frame, Austin scored in the first five minutes with Austin Salani finding the open area to make it 3-1. Maryland would get a bounce back with Ruh notching his second goal in as many games with an odd carom off the boards and behind Wiemken to make it 3-2 Austin. However, with under five minutes remaining, Austin sealed it with a Matt DeSiderio wrister from the point to make it 4-2 and winning the series two games to one.
Even with the result in Blaine not being to the liking of the Black Bears and their followers, the season as a whole will be one to remember and one for future teams to strive to become. With the best record in franchise history, the first 40-win season, the first regular season divisional title, and the first playoff divisional title; the Black Bears showed that this team is slowly becoming a destination and an area that people will need to keep an eye on, year-in and year-out.