As the defending Robertson Cup champions, there’s nothing more the Bismarck Bobcats want than to keep the storied trophy in North Dakota’s capital city.
But first thing’s first, and that’s a strong finish to their regular season - one that could still translate into a Central Division title.
With 53 games played, the Bobcats lurk only one point behind second-place Coulee Region, which has played 52 games, and three behind front-running Owatonna, which has played 55.
“I think it’s a very important goal for us,” Bobcats head coach Layne Sedevie said of the prospects of winning the regular-season division title. “It’s what we’ve been working towards all year, especially when you’re talking about having home ice throughout the playoffs.”
Home-ice advantage is an attractive incentive for any postseason-bound team, and the Bobcats are no different given the community’s enthusiasm for the organization and its success over the years, on and off the ice.
“The support in Bismarck has been awesome, and to play at home in front of our fans is something we want to be able to do,” said Sedevie.
To little surprise, this year’s Bobcats roster has a different flavor than last season’s championship-winning team. After sending over a dozen players onto NCAA programs, the team ushered in close to 15 players who had never experienced junior hockey prior to September.
Two first-year players - forwards Matthew Gates, the team’s leading scorer, and Dartmouth College recruit Charlie Mosey - have led the charge among the newcomers, according to Sedevie, with the entire group showcasing marked improvement since the beginning of the season.
“I think they’ve all made the transition nicely,” said Sedevie. “We’ve had a few ups and downs, but hopefully we’ve learned from them and can use those experiences in our playoff push.”
Gates, who’s averaging over a point a game (55 in 51), and goaltender Ryan Faragher, who helped backstop the Bobcats to last year’s championship, have been the team’s hardest-working and most consistent players since the start of the season, says Sedevie.
In two victories last weekend, Faragher picked up both wins between the pipes while turning aside 56 of 59 shots. On the season, the St. Cloud State University recruit holds a 29-17-2 mark to go along with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
“Ryan’s been the difference-maker night in and night out for us,” said Sedevie, a former Division I and professional netminder. “With his hard work on and off the ice, he’s turned into a premier goaltender in this league.”
Forward Dan Zawacki also delivered in the victories, picking up a goal and two assists. He has points in his last six games (two goals, five assists).
“Danny’s been a go-to guy for me from the start,” said Sedevie. “He’s one of my hardest workers night in and night out and he has great hands and is a very good playmaker. He makes everyone around him better.”
Of the Bobcats’ five remaining regular-season games, three are in Alexandria beginning this weekend with a two-game series and two are at home against the Express.
Fine-tuning for the Robertson Cup Playoffs, says Sedevie, is the No. 1 priority.
“Our focus is to start playing our best hockey,” he said. “We want to start playing with some consistency and start gaining some momentum as we move closer to the playoffs.”
CENTRAL DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ABERDEEN WINGS: The Wings dropped their only game of the week to Bismarck on Thursday, 5-2. Forwards Tyler Poulsen and Brandon Platt lit the lamp for Aberdeen. With four games remaining in their inaugural season, the Wings traveled to Alexandria for a game on Tuesday (a 5-4 victory) before they bus to Austin for a two-game series beginning on Friday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: With a pair of wins last weekend, the Blizzard clinched the Central Division’s fourth and final playoff berth. In addition to defenseman Mike Krieg’s three-goal, two-assist performance in the victories, Mercyhurst-bound Nardo Nagtzaam recorded a hat trick and an assist in Alexandria’s 7-2 triumph over Austin on Sunday and an assist in its 4-2 win over Owatonna the night prior. The Blizzard played its last road game of the regular season on Tuesday in Aberdeen (a 5-4 loss) before it plays its remaining six at home starting this weekend with a two-game set against Bismarck.
AUSTIN BRUINS: Austin dropped a pair of road games last weekend. Forward Jack Walsh scored the Bruins’ lone goal in their 3-1 loss to Bismarck on Saturday, while forwards Sam Olson and Jordan Greenberg connected for markers in a 7-2 defeat to Alexandria on Sunday. The Bruins play the last two home games of their inaugural season on Friday and Saturday against Aberdeen.
COULEE REGION CHILL: With last weekend off, the Chill plays three home games this weekend beginning with a two-game series against Wisconsin rival Janesville on Friday and Saturday before welcoming Austin to town for a game on Sunday. Coulee Region, which has six games remaining on its regular-season schedule, is just two points behind division-leading Owatonna with three games in hand.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: The division-leading Express lost its only game of the weekend to Alexandria on Saturday, 4-2. Forwards Willie Faust and Nick Widing scored the Owatonna goals. The Express, which has two more points than second-place Coulee Region in the standings but has played three more games, plays its last three regular-season games at home starting on Sunday against Alexandria.