Last Saturday night, after a stirring four-goal third period in their regular-season home finale seized a 5-2 victory over Bowling Green and lifted them into solo third place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings, the Seawolves offered their fans at Sullivan Arena a stick salute and bounced merrily to their dressing room.
Behind closed doors, they briefly laughed, and whooped and hollered, and teased their selected player of the game, Scott Allen, with cries of, "Speech! Speech! Speech.''
When the doors opened a moment later, the room inside was all but silent. The only sounds came from players quickly removing their gear before they headed back upstairs to sign autographs.
In far less time than it takes to complete a shift, UAA's players had already made the transition from revelry to reflection.
The Seawolves knew they hadn't yet captured what they seek -- at the least, securing a playoff position, and at the most, earning home ice for the playoffs.
And they knew the road ahead of them is both short on games -- just four regular-season games left, all on the road -- and long on challenges -- two games at league co-leader Ferris State this weekend and then a season-ending series at rival UAF.
"We take a little bit of time to celebrate it, then on to the next one,'' said senior defenseman Quinn Sproule.
That's because the Seawolves have done the math. Here they sit, four games above .500 overall, two games above .500 in conference and third place in a 10-team league in which only the top eight regular-season finishers qualify for the postseason. Yet, for all of their accomplishments, they could still find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.
"It's crazy how a single week can put you in seventh, or third, or whatever,'' said sophomore center Blake Tatchell. "You can't get ahead of yourselves.''
With 26 points in the standings and nine teams maneuvering for eight playoff positions - distant last-place Alabama-Huntsville already has been eliminated from the equation -- UAA still resides in cramped quarters. Seventh-place Bemidji State sits just four points behind the Seawolves with four games to go. Eighth-place Northern Michigan is just five points behind UAA and ninth-place Lake Superior State six points back, and both of those teams each have two league games in hand on UAA.
Consider too that all three of those chasers -- Bemidji, Northern Michigan and Lake Soo -- have series with Alabama-Huntsville still on the docket and are strong bets to grab all four points in those encounters.
And that UAA's opponent this weekend, Ferris State, ranked No. 5 in one national poll and No. 6 in another, is 9-0-1 this season in WCHA home games.
And that idle UAF is coming off a demolition of a sweep at Michigan Tech and has won six of its last seven league games.
And that UAA is the only team in the league with all its remaining games on the road. And that UAF is the only team in the league with all its remaining games at home.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but worse-case scenario, UAA could still end up missing the playoffs.
"The reality is, if we don't win, we're in trouble,'' said Seawolves bench boss Matt Thomas. "It's part of the process.
"The thing about college is it gets more important every weekend. The pressure grows.''
The only way to ease the load is to embrace opportunity and operate with tunnel vision on the immediate, Friday night's series opener in Big Rapids, Mich.
"You want to play in those pressure games,'' Tatchell said. "These are the games that prepare you for playoffs, because it is the playoffs.
"This is what you want to do this time of the year, play meaningful games.''
They're having a good time, these Seawolves, who are enjoying this turnaround after last season's 4-27-5 groaner, which triggered a coaching change and, in turn, success.
"We knew we had good players and under the right bench boss we could do good things,'' Sproule said. "It's totally new, it's fun.
"We're just trying to climb that ladder and get home ice.''
That ladder is a tricky one. The Seawolves have climbed it well to this point, and think they can continue to do so. But they also know the ladder can prove unstable. A slip can turn into a plunge.
So little time left in the regular season. So much at stake.
Hey, no pressure.
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
15-11-4, 11-9-4 WCHA
Ferris State (Mich.)
21-7-3, 16-4-2 WCHA
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