Consistency of effort. Consistency of execution.

 Bismarck Bobcats head coach and general manager Layne Sedevie is big on both.

 There's another word that applies to the current North American Hockey League season, as well. Exasperation. Undoubtedly there have been episodes of chagrin for coaches and players alike.

 Now, however, the trials and tribulations are bearing fruit. The Bobcats have won seven of their last nine games, and have become a factor in the race for one of the Central Division's four playoff spots. A month ago, a playoff berth would have seemed unlikely to the average observer.

 "I think the guys just know that we have a shot at making the playoffs. Since we started to win more games, there's more hope," said Jared Resseguie, an 18-year-old forward and co-captain. "That translates into a belief that we can win and will win if we know how to play."

 With eight regular-season games remaining, the Bobcats trail fourth-place Aberdeen by two points and third-place Brookings by five points in the battle for post-season berths. 

 Tonight and Saturday, Bismarck plays host to Brookings for a pair of contests laden with playoff implications. The puck drops at 7:15 both nights.

 The Bobcats go into the series with a 25-25-2 mark. Brookings visits the Capital City with a 26-20-5 log. Bismarck holds a 5-3 edge in the season series with two overtime wins.

 Sedevie's team had a high rookie quotient to begin the season, and several players have come and gone over the last six months. Adapting to the NAHL has taken time for the team's rookies -- 10 at last count.

 Bismarck sank five games below the break-even mark at 18-23-2 five weeks ago before taking off on the current nine-game surge.

 Ressigue said better defensive play has contributed in a big way to the late-season push. The Bobcats have outscored the opposition 34-24 over the last nine games.

 "We've been on a good roll. ... I don't think we've been very strong (defensively) all year, and we're starting to come together a little more now," he observed. "When we play strong defense, I think it translates to offense."

 On the current Bismarck roster, there are only four players who will age out at the end of this season. Resseguie is one of 13 Bobcats with two or more seasons of junior eligibility remaining.

With so many first-year junior players logging so much ice time, the Cats paid a price, according to Resseguie.

 "We were a lot younger (than last season) and that contributed to the difference. ... Experience is a big part of winning and losing," he noted. "At the beginning of the season we were a young, talented team that wasn't really sure how to play in this league. ... You play physical hockey the whole 60 minutes, but the guys are starting to figure it out."

 As important as the maturation process was, Ressigue said the acquisition of 19-year-old goalie Severi Isokangas gave the team a rock around which to rally.

 "I don't think we really became a team until we traded for Severi Isokangas. I think he's really solidified himself as the backbone of the team," Resseguie said. "... He's helped us win and he's a great guy in the locker room. ... He was kind of the missing piece for our team."

 Isokangas, who started the season with the Waterloo Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League, was picked up by the Bobcats on Jan. 12. He's won 10 of 15 decisions with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.

 Resseguie was a 17-year-old rookie from Arvada, Colo., last season. He said there's a world of difference between a rookie and veteran in the NAHL.

 "Definitely, I'm more confident, I would say. Experience, I think, is a big key to success. Once you get a good number of games down you become more comfortable; you understand time and space better and you know what to do in tight situations," he said.

 In addition, at six feet and 170 pounds, Resseguie is 10 pounds heavier than he was a year ago.

 "I've always been a physical player ... and (the physical maturity) helped me grow into a better offensive player," he said. 

 Resseguie scored two goals to go with 13 assists in 43 games as a rookie. This season he's scored nine goals and added 21 assists in 39 games. A similar pattern emerges when looking at his play with the Rocky Mountain Roughriders, a AAA youth hockey team in Colorado. 

 "I think I play a team-first game -- block shots, penalty kill, get pucks out when needed," he noted. "This year I've been able to contribute on the power play and more on the offensive side."

 Resseguie was quick to note, though, that assists involve more than one player.

 "A lot of assists come from solid work by my linemates," he said. "... A lot of credit has to go to my teammates for everything they do."

 In Resseguie's analysis, to come out of this weekend with four badly needed points the Bobcats must play aggressive, blue-collar hockey every shift of every period.

 "Our game is a tough, gritty game that may not the be prettiest, but a win is a win," he said. "We win by working hard all 60 minutes and playing as a unit -- moving the puck around and making plays. ... If we're playing physical and hard on the forecheck, we should be getting a lot of offensive possibilities."

 While garnering a playoff spot is the top priority, Resseguie said the Bobcats have greater aspirations than merely competing in the post-season. 

 "We're starting to come together as a team. I think if we make the playoffs we have the ability to make a pretty deep run," he observed.

 NOTES: Brookings is 5-4 in its last nine games with an overtime loss. ... Bismarck has outscored the Blizzard 32-27 in the first eight meetings between the two teams. ... Brookings boasts three scorers among the NAHL's top 25 and Bismarck has two. Brookings forward Paul Cotter ranks fourth in the league with 23 goals and 29 assists. Bobcats forward Tobias Fladeby is seventh with 24 goals and 27 assists. ... Blizzard goalie Josh Boyko has a 22-15-4 record in 44 games. He's surrendered 124 goals (2.89) with a .917 save percentage. ... Following the Brookings series, the Bobcats close the regular season with four road games against the Minnesota Wilderness and Brookings and a home series with Austin on April 7-8.

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Sports Reporter