I don't think I need to say that the importance of these last 2 series is high. With 12 points left and 5 points removed from a first round bye (6 for home ice in the 2nd round) and with these last two teams nipping at the heels, the guys need to punch it and drive their way into the playoffs.
Can the Nanooks still make the NCAA tournament? Possibly. While the outlook isn't great, the possibility that a team above us could fall, and depending how the boys in Anchorage finish, and how we do against them, could stamp fate's ticket. But, winning the last 6 games of the regular season is obviously going to be critical.
That said, I wonder what coach Ferguson's strategy will be heading into this series. As Sunday's game against Ferris went on, I noticed Cody Kunyk kind of strayed from his centering position and started attacking the puck more in the offensive zone, which is exactly what led to his 10th goal of the season that night. The question is, was that instinctive, or a guidance from the coach. Petovello has done this through out the season, roaming the offensive zone trying to make a play, but I think the difference here comes down to experience. Kevin has a lot better and making better decisions without the puck than Kunyk has throughout the early part of the season, but that seems to have changed. Cody has made a lot of improvements changing his game, making better positioning decisions in terms of attacking the puck and creating turnovers.
But guys like Kunyk, Petovello, and other top line guys in Granberg, Taranto, and Beck are not going to seal a game for us. It's going to be the guys on the deeper lines and their contributions that are going to play into the outcome. Our top lines can compete with the rest of them, and keep the game even, but it's guys like Gehon, Klassen, Finucci, Meyers, Filzen, Hohl, etc. whose scoring can make the difference.
Look at the Ferris State series back in Grand Rapids, the 4-3 OT win for the Nanooks was made possible by a goal from the 3rd line, as Klassen buried the second goal of the evening from Meyers and Gehon to put the Nanooks up 2-0 at the end of the first period.Without that goal, the game may not have ended in our favor. It may as well have ended as a 3-2 loss in regulation with everything else remaining the same.
If you look at the 4th game against Michigan, the last of the series at Yost, the game might have ended 4-2 if that Gehon-Filzen-Hohl line didn't get that goal on the rush. It's up to these lower line guys to, at the very least, start creating momentum and getting the play going their way, getting the defense on their heels and making them work, wearing them down.
Michigan's D held, give them credit, but we aren't facing a defense like Michigan's for the rest of this regular season. Not even a defense in the top 20 in the nation left on the agenda, so the opportunity for these lines to add some scoring is there. And getting these lines going and getting some goals and getting the strategy in their minds heading into the playoffs could be the key to make a run for it.
The scoring strategy remains the same, generating offense by moving the puck in the offensive zone, and creating some shooting lanes. Obviously you have to shoot the puck to score, but after they take that first shot, regaining possession and getting those second and third chances are where the goals are at. The guys had their chances against Ferris State, but Pat Nagle played a hell of a series, and the guys are going to have to face another good goaltender in Lake State rookie Kevin Kapalka. He's been somewhat inconsistent this season, but he's appeared to have gotten on a bit of a roll as of late.
Throughout the first part of the season, the Lakers struggled, to say the least. Their offense wasn't shut out, but they couldn't slow down the other team from scoring. They allowed 10 goals in a series against Michigan, 6 in a single game against Denver, 8 in a series against Notre Dame, the list goes on. But a series of exhibition games throughout a tour of Ontario in early January seemed to have most importantly tuned their defense, and likely Kapalka's confidence.
Kapalka and his Lakers have gone 3-1-0 in their last 4, including a series sweep of the Northern Michigan Wildcats. All 4 of those games were on the road before returning home this weekend with the Nanooks coming to town.
This trip is also one of those ridiculously long trips that most teams hate about coming to Fairbanks, but in a much different way for our guys. For those that don't know, Sault Ste Marie, MI is very similar to Kansas City in how the border between Kansas and Missouri actually bisects the town. While Kansas City spans two states, Sault Ste Marie spans the border of two countries, right on the border of Michigan and Ontario, separated by a body of water connecting Lake Superior to Lake George and Lake Nicolet. While I'm unaware of the Nanooks' specific travel plans, in years past its often included about 10-12 hours of flights and layovers to get to Green Bay, Wisconsin, followed by a 6 hour bus ride to get up there. While Sault Ste. Marie has an airport, it appears to be the difference of about $750 per ticket to fly right in, versus going the long way through Green Bay.