Friday, 04.14.2017 / 11:37 am CT
By Alex von Keudell
The Wildcats return to the Robertson Cup playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and hope to complete some unfinished business from last year. This time around, however, the circumstances have almost entirely flipped.
Last year, the Wildcats entered the postseason as favorites to win the Robertson Cup for the first time in their history. They were the top team in the league’s most competitive division, they had one of the best goaltenders in the league, they were in the NAHL’s top four in both power play and penalty kill, they were exceptionally fast, conditioned, deep, and had the rookie and coach of the year on their bench. They lived up to the hype surrounding them and went undefeated in the playoffs until the championship game, where they dropped a 2-0 heartbreaker to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Last year’s playoffs ushered very few upsets as all of the top seeds in each division advanced to the National Semi-Finals in Minnesota. Believe it or not, that is not normally the way the hockey postseason works.
Due to the unpredictable nature of the sport, among several other factors, there is more parity in the hockey postseason than virtually anywhere else. As the NAHL grows more competitive each and every year, the parity will only increase. Any team to make the playoffs has the ability to win the Robertson Cup. However, one would be remiss to ignore that in spite of this truth, the Wildcats are still viewed as enormous underdogs, and rightfully so.
What Needs to Change
The Cats have dropped a franchise record ten games in a row. Over that span, they’ve allowed a rough 4.6 goals per game. In the playoffs, teams which don’t defend don’t win. Period. While there is truth to the notion that anything goes in the playoffs and that everyone starts out as 0-0, gaping flaws don’t just disappear on their own and a concerning amount of them make a series against the #2 team in the NAHL this season look like a huge mismatch. The Wildcats can’t change the fact that the Brahmas have much more experience, and are entering the playoffs as favorites boasting the deepest team in their history as a junior franchise. What they can change, however, is how hard they work away from the puck, i.e., defending. It’s an entirely essential component to any player’s value at this level, and most of the Wildcats are going to have to completely re-define their understanding of that word if they expect to make it out of this series. Fortunately for them, their best defender is likely to make his long-anticipated return to action this weekend.
The Captain’s Return
It’s no coincidence the Wildcats went on their longest-ever losing streak two games after losing Seamus Donohue to a shoulder injury. He’s been the anchor from the blue line all season long, and losing him so suddenly noticeably hurt the Wildcats. In the 45 games Donohue has played this season, the Wildcats have a 26-15-4 record (.622%). By contrast, in the 15 games he was out of the lineup, the Cats went a meager 3-9-3 (.300%). Obviously, it will help to have the co-captain back. However, he alone will not remedy the Wildcats’ defensive woes. It will take four lines, three defensive pairs, and two goaltenders buying into the team good and a collective belief in their ability to upset the South Division champs for the Wildcats to pull off what many believe they cannot.