The Alpena hockey team has gone through its fair share of ups and downs this season, dealing with injuries and growing pains, but still managing to pull out some big wins.
The Wildcats are hoping they can add a few more big wins before season's end.
Alpena will play at Cadillac at 7 p.m. tonight in a pre-regional semifinal. The winner will advance to a regional final at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Gaylord against either Cheboygan or Sault Ste. Marie.
Despite a lot of obstacles, the Wildcats (13-10-1) have won their last seven games and are also eager to make up for last season's shortcoming in the playoffs.
"I think they have higher expectations as a team. We've been through a lot of adversity with injuries, disqualifications and the kids have overcome it every step of the way," Alpena coach Pete Doubek said. "They've shown a willingness to adapt and the seniors especially don't want hockey to end."
With a core group of returning veterans, the Wildcats stormed out to a 4-0 start to the season. and captured a Huron Shores Tournament title. Then injuries set in and the Wildcats took some lumps down the stretch, including a loss and a tie at last month's Boosters Tournament and a sweep by Escanaba a few weeks ago. After that the Wildcats began a winning-streak with a win over Sault Ste. Marie and haven't lost since.
Alpena would seem to have the advantage over Cadillac tonight, having already beaten the Vikings twice this season, but Doubek knows as well as anyone that everything changes when the playoffs begin.
"In the playoffs it's always a different world. Just about anybody can beat anybody at any given time," Doubek said.
Cadillac topped Gaylord 5-1 on Tuesday.
The Wildcats are still dealing with injuries to several players, but Doubek expects senior defenseman Brad Lorenz to play tonight after he broke his collarbone earlier in the year. Lorenz has been a solid presence in the locker room and the leader of a blue line corps that is young, but has done a lot of growing up as the season has gone on.
On offense, Alpena will look to its first line of Sam Rumbles, Jared Kwiatkowski and Zach Nash to lead by example as the trio has done all season. Kwiatkowski has been on a tear as of late, notching four goals in two consecutive games and a hat trick in his last three games.
The chemistry between the three players was already strong coming into the season, but it's gotten better with each game and their leadership has been a tremendous help to Doubek and his staff.
"They're automatic this year. They figured out how to prepare (by themselves) which is great for us as coaches," Doubek said.
Another area the Wildcats won't have to worry much about is goaltending. Though it can be one of the most troublesome issues for a team, especially during the postseason, Bret LeTourneau has been red-hot over the last few weeks, recording more than 40 saves in several games.
"The kids have gotten behind Bret and Jesse (Boilore)," Doubek said. "Bret's always in it until the last whistle."