That's certainly the case for the Ohio State men's hockey team, which will spend the last three weekends of the final Central Collegiate Hockey Association season not only jockeying for its own position in the league standings but having a major hand in who will win the last league championship.
The Broncos (18-7-5, 14-5-3-1) are in second place in the CCHA, just one point behind Miami going into games that will be held tonight and tomorrow at 7 p.m.
"It's big time," freshman defenseman Craig Dalrymple said.
The Buckeyes are fighting for plenty, as well. The team holds an 11-7-4-1 record in the CCHA, good enough for fifth place with 38 points. Ferris State is one point ahead of OSU in fourth, while Alaska is one back in sixth, and the Buckeyes have two games in hand on each of those teams.
Those standings take on particular importance because all three spots face drastically different playoff fates. Fourth place is the last to earn a first-round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals of the CCHA playoffs, while the team that finishes fifth gets a bye but must travel to take on the No. 4 seed in the quarterfinals. The team that finishes sixth, meanwhile, must host a series in the first round of the postseason.
Considering Ohio State (12-12-6) hasn't finished in the top four of the league standings since 2005, Dalrymple was on the money. This is big time.
"There's a lot on the line," said junior forward Travis Statchuk, an unofficial team co-captain. "We have a great opportunity here and we want to come out and get some points. Obviously, if we can do well this weekend, we can jump up there in the standings, and that's what we want to do. Having a bye in the first round is a great accomplishment and a great advantage."
Of course, the task is not going to be easy given the talent Western Michigan brings into Columbus, a fact best shown by the Broncos' ability to both draw penalties and convert. The 153 power plays the Broncos have earned are the most in Division I, and the team's power play checks in at a solid 19.0 percent.
Dane Walters and freshman defenseman Kenney Morrison are tied for second in the CCHA with six power-play goals, while Chase Balisy is right behind with five.
In all, Walters' 12 goals lead the team, and his 10 tallies in league play are tied for third. Balisy is tied with Walters with a team-high mark of 22 points, while freshman Colton Hargrove has six goals since the calendar year began, tied for third in the CCHA in that span.
But the team truly excels on defense, where its mark of 1.83 goals allowed per game is third in the nation. Sophomore Frank Slobowski has started every game, posting a 1.75 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
"We have to play our game," said Ohio State head coach Mark Osiecki, whose team split a series last weekend at Alaska, winning the Saturday game. "I think we have to be extremely disciplined. It's a well-coached team with (former NHL coach Andy Murray) and they are going to make some progress on their power play. They do a nice job on their penalty kill, but I think we have to stick with our team systems and play extremely disciplined.
"Anytime you can do that, I think you're going to put yourself in a position where you can roll through your lines. I think our depth is good and our depth is part of our strength."
Ohio State continues its homestand with flagging Michigan next weekend, and the Buckeyes earned 10 points of a possible 12 in its last home series vs. Lake Superior State and then-No. 9 Notre Dame.
Doing that again would not only likely clinch home ice for the Buckeyes, it could put them higher in the standings and rekindle the team's NCAA tournament hopes. However, the team isn't getting ahead of itself.
"Our focus is pretty clear," freshman defenseman Sam Jardine said. "Obviously you're looking forward to the four games and even the six that are left in the year, but for now the focus is (tonight). The series with Western Michigan is going to be a big one. They're in the top two in our conference. We need to be prepared and we need to be sharp all week in practice so we're ready to go."
With just one point in the series, OSU will clinch home ice in at least the first round of the CCHA playoffs for the first time under Osiecki.
Back From Alaska
Ohio State goes into the critical series having had to have put together a different game plan as far as practice this week simply because of the travel back from Alaska.
The nearly 4,000-mile trip to Fairbanks for the two games against the Nanooks is generally the toughest anyone in the Ohio State athletics program goes through each season. OSU showed that on the way up, as the team had travel legs in game one last weekend, a 6-1 blowout win for the home team.
"(We didn't have) our legs," Dalrymple said. "I know on Friday night, our one-on-one battles weren't that good at all."
It was a different story in the second game, as OSU played a much better team game and went into the third period tied at 1 with Alaska. From there, sophomores Darik Angeli and Ryan Dzingel scored in transition to give the Buckeyes the huge 3-1 win.
Now, the team must be ready to go after the return trip from the Last Frontier. Osiecki – who has taken teams at Alaska both at OSU and at Wisconsin, which shared a league with Alaska Anchorage – knows his team must be managed correctly this week in order to be ready to go.
The team had Monday off after arriving back in Columbus around 7 p.m. Sunday night, 18 hours after the final whistle in Fairbanks. After a noncontact practice Tuesday, the Buckeyes also had Wednesday off.
"That travel really wipes you out," Osiecki said after practice Tuesday. "I think guys are going to feel that effect today and probably a little bit tomorrow. Last night, talking to a few of them, it was a little difficult getting to sleep, but they'll get their bodies back on track."
The good news is at this point in the season, long, detailed practices aren't often necessary because the team has its plan in place. Osiecki is just trying to find the right balance of getting the team ready while also recharging its batteries this week.
"I think you have to be cautious of taking too many days off in a row," he said. "You can lose your skating legs a little bit, but taking a day off here or there, it's going to benefit you physically obviously but probably more importantly mentally."
Jardine said he had trouble sleeping Monday night after sleeping for around 12 hours the night the team returned from Alaska. By this weekend, the team should be ready to go after having been back in Columbus for the entirety of the week.
"You're just taking care of your body, getting the right rest, getting back on your sleeping schedules," Statchuk said. "You stay hydrated, eat the proper meals and stuff like that. Everything else, we've been doing this for a few years. Everyone is a little different, so just get on the bike, do what you need to do."