With just two games remaining in the 2021-22 North American Hockey League (NAHL) regular season, the Aberdeen Wings fell to third place in the Central Division standings after dropping their second game of the weekend, third consecutive, in a 3-2 loss Saturday night inside Riverside Arena against the Austin Bruins.
With some key point-earners out of the Wings’ lineup, Aberdeen struggled to find their footing offensively, while the Bruins seemed to solve the puzzle of the Wings’ tough special teams unit.
After a scoreless first period, Austin struck first when Ocean Wallace grabbed a power play goal at the 4:06 mark in the second period. But at the 10:31 mark, Kevin MacKay took a shot from the blue line that traveled through traffic to tie the game a one apiece. The unassisted goal was MacKay’s fourth on the season.
The Bruins took the lead later in the period when Braydon Simmons-Fischer beat Wings goaltender Anton Castro at the 14:36 mark. After two periods of hockey, Aberdeen trailed in shots on goal, taking 19 while allowing Austin 27 and headed into the final break trailing by one.
The Bruins widened their lead early in the third off a goal from Carson Riddle at the 3:47 mark. But Cade Neilson brought his team back within striking distance at the 8:57 mark when he worked wide past a defenseman and cut back, creating space to open a shooting opportunity and cutting the Austin lead back to one. He grabbed his team-leading 25th goal on the season, while Hugo Gustafsson notched his tenth assist and Adam Shuchart grabbed his second.
The Wings couldn’t capitalize on a power play later in the period and had to fight off a penalty with regulation time winding down. The Bruins outshot the Wings once again in the final period, overall taking 36 shots while holding Aberdeen to 26.
Despite the loss, Wings head coach Steve Jennings said he was happier with Saturday’s performance.
“I thought it was much better,” he said. “We played a harder, more complete game. But we still need more.”
Castro denied 33 of the shots he faced, coming up big on several occasions to help keep his team on the Bruins’ heels. But the Wings went 0-3 on the power play and allowed Austin a power play goal, the third on the weekend.
The St. Cloud Norsemen remain in first place in the Central Division with 81 points, followed by Austin and Aberdeen with 65 points apiece. The Minot Minotauros, swept by the Norsemen, remain at 59 points on the season. With just two games remaining, that means the Wings have locked in at least third place in the standings — and have the chance to retake the second place ranking and win home-ice advantage for the first round of playoffs.
Minot’s loss also locks in the Wings and the Bruins as first-round opponents in the playoffs. The Bismarck Bobcats swept the North Iowa Bulls, pushing themselves to 58 points while holding sixth-place North Iowa to 54 and nipping their playoff chances. The fourth playoff spot will be determined this weekend when the Minotauros and the Bobcats collide in a home-and-home weekend to determine who will face the Norsemen.
The Wings face the Bruins back inside the Odde to wrap up the regular season on home ice. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday, April 15-16, with the puck scheduled to hit the ice at 7:15 p.m. Fans can purchase tickets ahead of the game at tickets.AberdeenWings.com or at the door on game nights. $10 general admission tickets can also be purchased at any C-Express location in Aberdeen, with additional purchase. Follow along on AberdeenWings.com or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more game day information.
As for Jennings, he said his team needs to put the weekend behind them and focus on what’s ahead.
“It’s the only choice we have,” he said. “We need to learn lessons and have a short-term memory. A weekend doesn’t make a season.”