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Mudbugs and Brahmas Continue Season-long Defensive Battle

By Tom Robinson, 05/04/18, 3:30PM MDT

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A series of tight regular season contests has carried over into the playoffs

Somebody will eventually score when the Shreveport Mudbugs visit the Lone Star Brahmas for Game 3 of the North American Hockey League’s South Division Finals Friday.

The same is true if Games 4 and 5 need to be played Saturday and Sunday.

There are rules in place to guarantee that.

There may need to be.

“Goals are definitely at a premium,” said Shreveport coach Karlis Zirnis, whose team has a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series with the defending Robertson Cup champions.

That has been the case throughout a season series that has produced staggering numbers in terms of how few goals have been scored.

“I just think both teams have very similar philosophies,” Lone Star coach Dan Wildfong said. “We’re blocking pucks and both teams have very good goaltenders.

“When you have that and both teams committed to playing defense, there’s not much room out there.”

In the playoffs, the teams will continue with overtime until someone scores.

When they met Sept. 16 in just the second game, neither team could score for 60 minutes of regulation or five minutes of sudden-death overtime. Regular-season rules dictated that they decide their outcome in a shootout.

Although that exact scenario has not been repeated, the opening weekend, in which they combined to score three goals in 125 minutes of hockey, was a good indication of what was to come.

After two games of the playoff series, the Mudbugs and Brahmas have combined seven shutouts in 10 games. Teams have been held scoreless eight times if you consider that Shreveport’s only goal Sept. 16 came in a shootout.

Both teams were also scoreless through regulation on March 30 before Jordan Fader scored 19 seconds into overtime to give Shreveport a 1-0 win.

Even the winners have had a hard time scoring.

The high for either team in the series is three goals and that has happened just twice. In every other scenario, both teams have had two goals or less.

Lone Star was the toughest team to score on in the NAHL regular season, nudging Shreveport by one goal in that category, 111-112. They had the only two defenses in the league to allow fewer than two goals per game in the 60-game schedule, finishing well ahead of the overall regular-season champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who allowed 125.

The Brahmas remain the toughest team to score on in the playoffs, giving up just 1.2 goals per game, but the Mudbugs have yielded the least goals during the division final round.

Even those totals can’t completely explain what happens when the two teams get together. There are endless numbers that illustrate just how defensive the series has become.

Eight of the 10 games have been scoreless after one period and half of those have remained that way going into the third period. On average, when the teams meet, it takes 37 minutes for the first goal to be produced. A typical game between the Brahmas and Mudbugs results in 1.9 combined goals in regulation.

The two defensive-minded teams have gotten into each other’s heads and forced each coach to think about ways to generate more offense while remaining true to what has made each a title contender.

“You try to adjust here and there a little bit to make sure you get some offensive looks,” Zirnis said.              

The changes are happening on both benches.              

“We change and they change,” Wildfong said. “It’s like chess on ice, really.

“We’re trying to create as much offense as we can and still stay within our structure of what we want to be. We don’t want to change too much, but we’re talking about offense a lot — getting more pucks through, throwing more pucks and bodies at the net, making sure we have delays and guys like layers coming up the ice.”

It becomes hard not to think that when the first goal comes, the game may have ultimately been decided.

“Every shift, every faceoff, every battle matters because it’s so tough to get any bit of daylight,” Zirnis said. “Literally, every inch matters on the ice.”

The teams fight for those inches to see which can produce the few chances the opposing defenses allow.

“You only have maybe two Grade-A chances a game,” Wildfong said. “Everything is ramped up, because you might normally have five or six in a game.”

And, when the offense makes a play or the defense makes a mistake, the puck still needs to get past the goalie.

The season series is even at 5-5 with Lone Star’s Mitchell Gibson posting five shutouts, including the one where he lost in a shootout, and holding Shreveport to one goal all the way through to a shootout in the Brahmas’ other win.

The play of the 18-year-old from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, against the division champions played a big role in making Gibson the NAHL’s top goalie statistically in the regular season.

Gibson had a 0.42 goals against average and .980 save percentage in seven games against the Mudbugs. The Harvard commit tied an NAHL record with 11 shutouts while leading the league’s qualifying goalies in GAA (1.59) and save percentage (.935).

Jaxon Castor did not play in enough games to qualify for the NAHL statistical leads, but he beat Gibson’s GAA, posting a 1.50, along with three shutouts in 15 decisions.

Gibson again leads NAHL goalies in the postseason with a 1.59 GAA and .935 save percentage. Castor, a 21-year-old from Phoenix with 82 games of United States Hockey League experience, is 5-1 with a 1.87 GAA and .925 save percentage.

The Brahmas were 17-0-1 in their last 18 games coming into the series, continuing their pursuit of the first back-to-back Robertson Cup titles since the St. Louis Bandits in 2008 and 2009.

 

When the series opened April 27 in Shreveport, the Mudbugs needed to wait until the final 1:28 before scoring the game’s only goal on a Fader deflection after a faceoff win set up a point shot. Caster made 30 saves in his shutout.

The teams were scoreless again until 7:29 of the third period in the second game, which resulted in a 2-1 Shreveport win. Fader scored again, Roberts Baranovskis had the winner with just over three minutes left and Castor made 23 saves.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc. Photo courtesy of Rebekah Bing

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