Nearly every time the Seawolves needed to strike a blow this hockey season, Matt Bailey wielded the hammer.
When a bounce-back performance was required in the wake of a disappointing one, Bailey invariably spearheaded the charge. When UAA needed a goal late in a game and first-year coach Matt Thomas shortened his bench, he leaned hardest on Bailey, a senior center whose talent and drive are matched by his fitness. In the most desperate times, Thomas just straight-up double-shifted Bailey -- one shift at center, a short breather on the bench, then another shift at center or wing.
As UAA prepares to face league champion and No. 4-ranked Ferris State in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Final Five on Friday in Grand Rapids, Mich., there's no mistaking the identity of its leader.
Bailey, a captain, leads the 18-15-4 Seawolves in goals (20), points (38), plus-minus (plus-17) and sheer will.
Thomas isn't the sort to pump a player's tire just to make a kid feel good about himself or to champion the program, so it's worth noting how he raves about Bailey.
"If you were playing 1-on-1 hoops in your driveway or you were in a bar throwing darts, he'd be playing to win,'' Thomas said. "He wants to compete, and he wants to win.
"He just out-competes guys. There's just more levels to him. Man, it is inspiring as a coach, and as a teammate you're like, 'I better get on that page.' The guy just gets to a whole (higher) level very quickly. I haven't been around a more dedicated and focused player, who knows what makes him good and how to bring it out.''
When Bailey is playing at the top of his game -- physical, skilled and relentless -- the Seawolves seem to follow.
And, coming off a first-round series victory in three games on the road against higher-seeded UAF -- Bailey shined in both elimination games, furnishing a goal in Game 2, and one goal and one assist in Game 3 -- they'll need him to spark them again.
What the Seawolves already have accomplished -- a guaranteed winning season for the first time in more than two decades and a comeback first-round series win against their rival -- makes this a successful season. Remember, this is a program that last season went 4-25-7 in previous coach Dave Shyiak's last go-round. Sure, the WCHA was a significantly more powerful conference last season, the final one before the landscape of Division I college hockey shifted monumentally. Still, 4-25-7 -- with one win in the final 24 games.
But there's only one way to look at the Seawolves' season journey at this point: They're two victories away from making the NCAA Tournament. The winner of the Final Five earns the league's automatic berth in the NCAA field of 16.
And that's why the Seawolves don't want to be one of those teams that advance a round in the postseason and are just happy with that unexpected result.
"This is a business trip for us,'' Thomas said. "We're going to be focused, really intense. We've got to go in with a chip on our shoulder.''
That's what it will take to get past Ferris State. The Bulldogs (27-9-3) will earn an NCAA berth whether they win the tournament or not. Minnesota State-Mankato, which plays Bowling Green in the other semi, could possibly get an NCAA bid without winning the tournament, but UAA and Bowling Green must win to join the NCAA party.
"Ferris State's the best team in our conference, they're a top-five team in the country,'' Thomas said. "They know how to win, they know how to play and they know their identity.''
The Bulldogs swept a February league series from the Seawolves, 4-2 and 5-3, in Big Rapids, Mich. They built a 2-0 lead through one period in the opener and a 3-0 lead through one period in the finale.
"We lost both games in the first period,'' Thomas noted. "It wasn't because they overwhelmed us. It was because we didn't show up.''
It's worth noting too that in the second game of that series, when the Seawolves unleashed 40 shots on Bulldogs first-team All-WCHA goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist C.J. Motte, Bailey furnished two goals and an assist. He's generated multiple-point games a team-high 11 times this season.
The odds are stacked against UAA. They're playing the regular-season champion. And Ferris State is only an hour's drive from Grand Rapids. Of course, the odds were tilted against the Seawolves last week too.
"If people want to classify us as the underdog, great,'' Thomas said. "But we look at it as, we have two games to win.''
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
No. 4 Ferris State
Friday, 3:07 p.m. ADT
Radio: Live, AM-650 KENI
TV: Live, GCI Cable Channel 1