In terms of qualifying for the NAHL playoffs, the Bismarck Bobcats have painted themselves into a corner. And they're deeper in that corner today than they were at this time on Friday.
Ashton Altmann's power-play goal broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Minnesota Wilderness a 4-3 victory over the Bobcats on Friday night at the VFW Sports Center.
That setback leaves the Bobcats with a 24-25-6 record in the NAHL's Central Division. That's two points behind Minot and five in arrears to the Wilderness, the two teams Bismarck is chasing in the playoff race.
Four Central Division teams advance to the playoffs. At this point the Wilderness stands third, Minot fourth and Bismarck fifth. And Minot and the Wilderness, from Cloquet, Minn., each have two games in hand.
"There's really no way around it, we need points. We only have five games left," Bobcats head coach and general manager Layne Sedevie said.
"We need to win all five. If we're 4-1 we may need help," he added.
If the Bobcats are to resurrect their playoff hopes, the process must begin at 7:15 tonight when they face the Wilderness again.
Bismarck was clawing from behind almost all night on Friday, trailing 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. Each time the Bobcats came back to tie, until Altmann scored from short range on the power play with 11:04 to play.
Altmann said the play on which he scored -- a pass from Garrett Worth behind the net -- has been rehearsed many times.
"We practice it quite a bit. He actually was a high school teammate (in Duluth, Minn.). ... It was nice to click together again," Altmann said. "I looked at his eyes and I knew (the puck) was coming to me at some point."
When the puck arrived, Altmann was situated right on the doorstep of Bobcats goalie John Roberts. All he had to do was put it away from point-blank range.
While the Wilderness isn't in the same dire straits as Bismarck, Altmann said there's still something at stake.
"For us it's really important to get that separation from Minot and Bismarck," he said. "This was a good start, but we've got to come back tomorrow and play a full 60 minutes."
Altmann said the power play struggled as the Wilderness dropped two games in Minot last week. When coach Tim Madsen decided to shake things up, Altmann was part of the answer.
"I love being on the power play. I'm a penalty killer, too, so it's nice to get a chance to put some pucks in the net," he said.
The Wilderness converted two power plays on Friday.
Minnesota's Nicholas Michel and Bismarck's Simon Morberg traded goals in the first period, the Bobcat goal coming with a man advantage.
The Wilderness sandwiched tallies by Gino Lucia and Worth around a goal by Bismarck's Cooper Harr to go ahead 3-2 after two periods.
Joe Mancuso pulled the Bobcats even at 3:11 of the third period, scoring on a picture-perfect goal. Adam Stacho, in the left circle, found Mancuso open on the right post and fed him a pinpoint pass. Bingo, the game was tied 3-3.
For Altmann, a 6-foot-2, left wing, the VFW Sports Center is familiar territory. He played the first half of last season for the Bobcats before being traded to the Wilderness.
"I started my junior hockey career here. It's a great program, but things didn't work out and I ended up getting traded," Altmann said. "It's fun to come back here. I still know a few of the guys (on the Bobcats)."
Sedevie said his injury-riddled team gave him all the effort he could have asked for on Friday.
"Trying to implement (new) guys into our system is not easy to do this time of year," he said. "We battled, and I'm proud of our guys. Hopefully, we can get through tomorrow night and get some of our guys back from injuries."
The Bobcats have next weekend off before closing the season with two home games against division-leading Aberdeen and two games at second-place Austin, Minn.
Sedevie said his team is currently playing seven short. Forward Grant Johnson is done for the season with an ACL injury and goalie Ryan Ullan may be done for the year with a hip injury.
"It's been tough," Sedevie said.