When asked the question last Thursday, prior to the weekend games, Neepawa Natives head coach Dwayne Kirkup's response was quite clear – and confident.
“I really think we are going to make the playoffs,” Kirkup said. “I think we've really played a lot better after the Christmas break, there's a lot more confidence in the room right now. We all know we only have 20 players and we're all-in every night, and looking for everybody to be pushing everybody else.”
The Natives are making a quiet push for the post-season in February.
They started the month by squandering a third-period lead, but hung on to get a point in an overtime loss to Swan Valley.
More importantly, they followed that with consecutive wins against the Waywayseecappo Wolverines – the team they are four points behind for the final playoff spot in the Sher-Wood Division with eight games remaining in the season, not including this past weekend's action.
“Against Wayway, I think we tried to simplify the game and put pucks in behind their defenseman,” Kirkup said. “They had a different style in their forechecking and I think we played against that well.
“To respond like we did against Wayway, I thought was really good for our team. That's the kind of momentum we need to keep going into this weekend, and for the rest of the year.”
Neepawa played Virden at the Yellowhead Centre this last Friday, and followed that with a game in OCN against the Blizzard.
Neepawa plays the Blizzard – who have lost nine consecutive heading into the weekend's action – three times to finish out the year. Those will be important games in terms of Natives playoff hopes, Kirkup believes.
“We are taking it game-by-game, but we play OCN three times now, so that's where our focus needs to be after Friday night,” Kirkup noted.
A key to sustaining their momentum might be the Natives' special teams efforts. The powerplay was once a point of frustration for the Natives, beginning the year with the league's worst conversion rate, but in the past three outings Neepawa has five powerplay markers.
It's also found a surprising offensive outburst on the penalty kill, with two shorthanded markers over that span.
“I think the powerplay has been more or less the difference between winning and losing,” Kirkup agreed. “We always thought earlier in the season we were one or two goals out in a lot of those games, and the powerplay can make the difference there.
“Our defensive play is a lot better than it has been at the beginning of the year, and it doesn't matter if it's Matt Verreault or Tyson Verhelst in net, I think the players have confidence in either one of the guys and they've done very well.”