Call it playoff time, tournament time, postseason play, whatever you want. That's the time of the season sports fans relish.
Everything is pitched a notch or two higher, adrenaline flows more freely and the atmosphere is electric.
The North American Hockey League isn't there yet. The playoffs don't begin until mid-April. Nonetheless, Layne Sedevie says it's time for his team to begin playing with that kind of intensity as the regular season ebbs away.
"This weekend is huge," Sedevie, the Bismarck Bobcats head coach and general manager said as he assessed this weekend's two games with the Aberdeen Wings. "We're seven points out (of a playoff position) and if we win both these games we'll only be three points out, so there's a pretty big emphasis, especially at home."
Tonight's 7:15 game and Saturday's followup are the final two games of the season between Bismarck and Aberdeen. Aberdeen appears to be the team the Bobcats must track down in order to earn one of the Central Division's four playoff spots.
As things now sit, Minot with 62 points, the Minnesota Wilderness (54), Brookings (52) and Aberdeen (49) have the edge in the race for playoff berths. Austin (43) and the Bobcats (42) are playing catchup.
Four of the Central Division teams have 46 of their 60 regular season games in the books. Minot has played 47 and Brookings has one game in hand.
The Bobcats stand 20-24-2 after splitting a pair last weekend at Aberdeen. Bismarck lost the first game 4-1, and Severi Isokangas blanked the Wings 2-0 on Saturday, the first Bobcat shutout of the season.
"We had a down moment Friday in Aberdeen, and it was must-win on Saturday. We had to get a win," Sedevie observed.
From the Bobcat perspective, the difference between a split and sweep at the VFW Sports Center this week is stark. A split would leave Bismarck right where it started the week -- seven points out of fourth place, but with only 12 games remaining. A sweep would put the Cats at 46 points, hot on Aberdeen's tail.
"The biggest four points is this weekend, head-to-head. If we get four points this weekend ... with 12 to go, anything can happen then," Sedevie said.
While Aberdeen is the team in Bismarck's crosshairs right now, Austin also figures in the run for the playoffs. Should the Bobcats put together a closing rush, they'll have to hope that Austin doesn't get equally hot at the same time.
To put things in perspective, if Aberdeen plays break-even hockey over its final 14 games, Bismarck will have to squeeze 21 points out of its final dozen-plus-two to draw even with the Wings.
"We've put ourselves in a bit of a hole. ... With those two this weekend we can really make up ground, but we can't play .500 hockey down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs," Sedevie observed.
Bursts of impressive hockey are not beyond Bismarck's reach. The Bobcats put together a 6-1 run in October and a 5-1 surge in January. That's the type of play that's required the rest of the way if the Cats hope to be part of the playoff party.
"The biggest problem with our team is inconsistency. Any time you win six of seven hockey games, you're climbing, and you're climbing fast. ... But with a young team we've had our ups and downs," Sedevie noted.
Well said. Immediately following the October surge, Bismarck went on a 3-10-1 freefall that left them 11-14-1 in early December. The Bobcats haven't risen to the .500 level since.
Sedevie is well aware that consistency becomes harder to achieve as the number of veteran players diminishes. Now, though, consistency is no longer a goal, It's a necessity.
"Coaches will tell you that any time you go on a winning stretch you'll win a game you shouldn't have won or your goaltender stole you one," Sedevie said.
"Teams that go on a run and maintain it are finding ways to win," he continued. "Conversely, we've found ways to lose games. Down the stretch we've got to find ways to win, it doesn't matter if its offense, goaltending or defense. We need to find a way to string games together."
Dealing with a high roster turnover rate is the nature of junior hockey. When a host of veterans leave, as was the case with the Bobcats last spring, the trick is to remain competitive while rebuilding, according to Sedevie.
"We knew we had a rebuilding year (this season) ... but that's junior hockey," Sedevie said. "We're rebuilding and we're still in the hunt, so we've got a lot to play for in these last 14 games."
Reaching the playoffs is motivation in itself. But Sedevie says getting a young team into postseason has positive long-term ramifications, as well.
"The further you can go with a young team ... the greater the experience in the coming year," Sedevie said.
With a 60-game regular season grind, it's impossible to maintain an adrenaline-rich fever pitch. Nonetheless, Sedevie expects both teams to amp things up this weekend.
"Saturday in Aberdeen -- that game had the feel of a playoff game. There are maybe 10 or 12 (regular season) games a year that have that playoff-type feel," Sedevie noted. "... Playoff intensity is hard to mimic, that's for sure."
NOTES: Aberdeen has turned things around under new coach Scott Langer after going winless against the Bobcats last season. The Wings have a 7-2-1 edge on Bismarck this season. ... Bismarck's win at Aberdeen on Saturday halted the Wings' eight-game winning streak. Aberdeen fell 7-2 to Brookings on Sunday, slipping to 23-20-3. ... Bobcats goalie Will Ulrich, who hasn't played since Dec. 3 due to an ankle injury, is done for the season. ... Bismarck defenseman Kyle Siemers, who appeared in 27 games, has also been removed from the roster due to a knee injury. ... Aberdeen forward Kevin Fitzgerald ranks eighth in the NAHL in scoring with 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists). ... Bobcats forward Tobias Fladeby is 10th with 22 goals and 23 assists. ... Wings goalie Forbes Ploszaj ranks 10th in the league with a 2.54 goals-against average in 24 games.