MISSOULA – 20 games in, the Missoula Bruins know what they’re up against. The new junior hockey club picked up where the Maulers left off. But they did it in a new league.
The NA3HL Frontier Division only stretches across Montana and northern Wyoming, so the Bruins do enjoy shorter road trips. And with only two games a week instead of three, everyone feels fresher at the mid-point of the season.
“It’s a better game on Friday nights,” said defenseman Austin Azzinnaro who played for the Maulers last season. “Instead of driving eight hours to McCall or Seattle or however far, and get off the bus and that Friday game is a little bit slow for the away team.”
“First of all they’re staying a lot more healthy this year,” noticed head coach Marcus Baxter who coached the Maulers for seven years. “And having that day to recover is paying dividends. We’re able to work on more things that we need to work on during the week.”
The NA3HL also allows for fewer international players than the WSHL where Missoula played the last few yeawrs. The Maulers suited up several Europeans that provided plenty of speed, but the current Bruins only have a couple imports. Players say communication is easier, but the game is a little bit slower.
“I think the competition in this league is a little bit slower than the Western States League,” admitted Azzinnaro, who won the most recent player of the week award in the Frontier Division. “I played for the Maulers. It’s a little bit different. A little bit lower in my opinion. But definitely there are more scouts and more people looking at this league. So it’s better opportunity to guys who want to go to the next level.”
“The NA3HL is a grittier league, as the Western States is a more fast, finesse league,” added forward Josh Chamberlain. “So for our guys to really continue the success, we need to get stronger.”
“I like the league,” said Baxter. “I think every night you’ve got to show up and make sure you’re playing at your best. There’s five or six teams in this division that you have to do that with.”
The Bruins season has plenty of ups and downs so far. They recently followed an 8-game winning streak, with three losses in a row. Closing in on the midway point, Missoula sits in fifth place in the division, just barely behind fourth place Bozeman. The top four advance to the playoffs in March.
This week the Bruins head to struggling seventh place Billings. They’ll take on the Bulls at 7:30 Friday and Saturday night.