North American Hockey League players are in their seventh month of action.
With the season starting with training camps August and the regular season getting underway in mid-September, the grind of the season has fully set in for most teams. So anything that can help break up the tediousness of the 60-game schedule featuring mostly two games per week is often a welcomed sight.
For the Chippewa Steel, that comes in the form of some unique scheduling as the team plays three games per week several times in the coming weeks. This week the Steel play their on Wednesday when they hit the road to Richfield, Minn. to face the Minnesota Magicians before a home game against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Friday and a road game at the Janesville Jets on Saturday.
Three games against three different opponents in four days is a unique scheduling quirk, but certainly one that gives the team a different type of week.
“The monotony of the normal schedule is always practice all week, two games on the weekend. It is weird but I enjoy it a little bit," Chippewa Steel coach Carter Foguth said. "I think all the guys would rather be playing in games than practicing anyway.”
The Steel are familiar with their three Midwest Division foes, beginning with the Magicians. Chippewa has faced off with Minnesota in its previous three games, taking two of three last week including a 4-0 shutout to close the week at Chippewa Area Ice Arena on Saturday. The Ice Dogs will come to down on Friday in first place in the division with 69 points, well in front of Kenai River (56) and Chippewa (52) and have already clinched a playoff berth. It will be the first meeting between the Steel and Ice Dogs since Chippewa earned a 3-2 overtime win on Dec. 20.
“It just kind of changes the preparation in terms a little bit knowing who you’re playing and the different systems we’re preparing for (and) being able to flip the page the very next day," Foguth said.
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Chippewa then heads south to face Janesville, a team the Steel have defeated in each of their first six meetings so far this season. The Steel and Jets will play six more times before the end of the season.
With such a variety of teams and information to sort through, Foguth said the staff will try to keep it simple and not put too much on the team's plate.
“It’s more of a focus on us and not trying to overload the guys on too much on the other team," Foguth said. "But at the same time just going through some minor stuff to pay attention to.”
The Magicians are fifth in the league standings with 36 points, but are 5-4-0-1 in their past 10 games. Fairbanks has already secured a postseason berth and has not lost since the defeat to the Steel, a 12-game winning streak. Janesville is 7-3-0-0 in its last 10 games and currently leads the Magicians by five points for the fourth and final playoff spot in the division.
Starting with last week's set of three games, the Steel play five three-game weeks before the end of the season in early April. Chippewa had its bye weeks early in the season and has a backloaded schedule of its 60-game slate. But that also gives the team the chance to make up ground on Fairbanks and Kenai River in the coming weeks.
“That’s a lot of hockey in two weeks so we take it one game at a time and one three-game set at a time," Foguth said. "So two out of three (last week) we were happy with that and we turn around and do it again this week.”
The coaching staff has done all it can to freshen up practices, using different schedules and drills to keep the team engaged while making sure the team is getting enough rest to stay fresh for the important stretch run.
“I think they have energy and with some of the success we’ve had this year that keeps them going too," Foguth said. "They’ve had a little taste of that (success) and they want to keep it going.”