Last year in their inaugural season as a North American Hockey League franchise, the Anchorage Wolverines fought and clawed their way into the postseason and went on an improbable run that saw them advance all the way to the Robertson Cup finals before falling to the New Jersey Titans.
They find themselves in an eerily familiar situation for the second straight year with four games left to play, all of which are against the Kenai River Brown Bears of Soldotna.
“We kind of knew this all along — that it was going to come down to the end of the way things were going,” Wolverines coach Evan Trupp said.
Kenai is ranked fourth in the Midwest Division standings with 63 points, which is two spots above Anchorage, which sits in sixth place with 59 points. Since only the top four teams in each division advance to the playoffs, the next two weekends are essentially all must-win-to-get-in scenarios for Anchorage.
While Trupp is not sure exactly what needs to happen for them to punch their tickets to the postseason, winning at least three of the last four games — if not running the table — might be necessary to give themselves their best shot.
“We’re just looking at that first game and not looking past it,” he said. “We’re gearing up this week in practice and getting ready for that first game.”
Even though they’re currently on the outside looking in, the Wolverines can take some solace in knowing that they control their own destiny with four games left. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs are currently in fifth in the Midwest with 61 points but only have two games left. They’d have to win out themselves and likely need Anchorage to lose out or at least drop three of their final four to get in.
“I like it to be honest,” Trupp said. “It’s a very similar situation to last year, where it kind of came down to the last weekend.”
He said the team has already adopted a “do-or-die” mindset knowing it doesn’t have much margin for error down the stretch after struggling to find consistency earlier in the season.
“There’s something to it that you have to elevate your game to another level just to fight to make it into playoffs,” Trupp said. “Then once you get in playoffs, you kind of have to have what it takes.”
To go on another deep run in the Robertson Cup playoffs, he believes that they need to find “that extra gear” once again.
“Last year we kind of really battled to claw our way into the playoffs on the final stretch, and that carried into playoffs, and I think we kind of ran with that momentum,” Trupp said.
This year’s Wolverines have some key returners from last year’s runner-up team but lost other players such as goalie Raythan Robbins and forwards Talon Sigurdson and Hunter Bischoff, who led their playoff charge.
“There’s probably seven or so guys left that were part of it last year,” Trupp said. “They kind of preach in the locker room and are kind of the leaders, the older guys, and that desire is still there, wanting to get back and make another run and get a different outcome this time.”
Even though the Wolverines have a winning record against the Brown Bears this season with a 5-3 season series lead and having won each of the last four, they aren’t taking their rivals lightly.
“I know we’ve had some success playing against them the last couple of times, but we haven’t seen them in a while, and they’ve been playing well lately,” Trupp said. “Obviously they’re above us in the standings and we’re trying to try to catch them.”
After struggling to find and win with consistency for stretches this season, Trupp believes the key to picking up steam in late April and into May is focusing on “just being present” as they go one game and shift at a time.
“Momentum is a huge thing in this game, and just having these guys trust the process and taking it game by game, shift by shift, being in the moment and not looking behind us or too far ahead,” Trupp said.
The Wolverines will begin their quest to clinch a playoff berth with their final two home games this weekend at Ben Boeke Ice Arena at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
In addition to these matchups being their last two home games of the year, it will be military appreciation weekend for the Wolverines. Trupp said the franchise hopes to honor service members while treating them to exciting hockey.
“We’ll have that home-crowd advantage and get things going on the right foot,” Trupp said.