ALEXANDRIA - Last spring, the Alexandria Blizzard's chase for a playoff berth came down to the final day of the regular season. There will be no such drama in 2008.
The Blizzard rolled off three straight victories over the weekend to guarantee themselves a spot in the North American Hockey League's post-season tournament beginning the first weekend in April.
"That last game against Bismarck last year was one of the most intense games I have ever been involved in," said defenseman Joe Hartman. "One of us was going to be in the playoffs and one of us was going to be out."
This time around, the pressure is off with three regular season games remaining.
"It feels real good to clinch, especially from where we came from," said forward John Swavely, who had four points in Saturday's 8-0 pasting of Bismarck. "It's really rewarding to know how far we've come and that we have three games left with no pressure."
The Blizzard defeated Bismarck 5-1 on Friday and 8-0 on Saturday before scoring a 6-3 win over Fargo-Moorhead Sunday. By defeating the Jets, the Blizzard eliminated Fargo-Moorhead from the post-season race.
"It was a pretty good team effort all around. All four lines were clicking and it was nice to put the puck in the net," Swavely said.
"Coming up with three wins going into next weekend really means a lot," said defenseman Brandon Larson, who had two goals and two assists Saturday. "We showed our true character this weekend and every line contributed."
Brandon Bahnemann had four goals on the weekend. Both Luke Nesper and Mikael Lickteig continued their outstanding play and have recorded points in nine straight games.
The Blizzard are 8-3-0 in March with a goals against average of 2.91. After starting the season with just three victories in their first 18 games, Alexandria has now passed the .500 mark (27-25-3) for the first time.
Ryan Leets started all three games, recording his second shutout of the season and extending his personal win streak to six in a row.
"He made some big saves for us," Swavely said. "When the other team broke us down, he was there to bail us out. He has played solid and that's what we need out of him."
"I am so happy for him," Hartman said. "He has been phenomenal for us lately. He has been on top of the world."
Since December 1, Leets has a record of 16-6-1, a 3.11 goals against average and a save percentage of .902, respectable numbers on a team that tends to focus on offense most of the time.
Now the goal is third place.
The Blizzard are just one point behind Springfield (the Jr. Blues were playing in St. Louis at press time Tuesday) with three games remaining for each team.
If the Blizzard finish third, they will face Southern Minnesota in the opening round for the third straight year. If Alexandria remains in fourth place, the Blizzard will travel to North Iowa for a best-of-five series.
"It's always good to look up in the standings but we made playoffs and that was our goal," Hartman said. "We're going to have to win two playoff series against two very good teams. It's going to be a battle no matter who we play."
One lucky fan will win a trip to Las Vegas this weekend as the Blizzard wrap up their regular season home schedule
Saturday is Hilltop Lumber Stick Night with a giveaway of souvenir sticks for kids
There will also be a Salute to Veterans Saturday with free admission for veterans, active duty, Guard and Reserves.
BISMARCK 1 0 0 1
ALEXANDRIA 1 1 3 5
1. BIS - Kevin Harris (Tobias Falk) 3:20, 2. ALEX - Garrett Grimstad (Kyle Clement) 12:45.
3. ALEX - Luke Nesper (Joe Hartman, Mikael LIckteig) 17:42.
4. ALEX - Brandon Bahnemann (Kyle Clement) 1:48, 5. ALEX - Mikael Lickteig (Luke Nesper) 13:49 pp, 6. Joe Hartman (Dustin Trail, Ryan Leets) 16:57 empty net.
GOALIE SAVES - Jake Kremer, Bis, 22; Ryan Leets, Alex, 25.
PENALTY TOTALS - Bismarck 14 minutes on seven infractions, Alexandria 14 minutes on seven infractions.
1ST STAR - Luke Nesper, Alex. 2ND STAR - Mikael Lickteig, Alex. 3RD STAR - Luke Nesper, Alex.
BISMARCK 0 0 0 0
ALEXANDRIA 4 4 0 8
1. ALEX - Brandon Larson (Kyle Clement, Brandon Bahnemann) 1:50, 2. ALEX - Larry Kincaid (Noah Nemgar, Jon Swavley) 2:30, 3. ALEX - Brandon Bahnemann (Kyle Clement, Garrett Grimstad) 12:29, 4. ALEX - Jerry Freismuth (Luke Nesper, Mikael Lickteig) 15:51.
5. ALEX - Brandon Larson (Jon Swavely, Noah Nemgar) 7:28, 6. ALEX - Brandon Bahnemann (Brandon Larson, David Hines) 9:57 pp, 7. ALEX - Jon Swavely (David Hines, Brandon Larson) 15:00 empty net, 8. ALEX - Larry Kincaid (Jon Swavely, Noah Nemgar 15:39.
GOALIE SAVES - Matt Grogan, Bis, 17; Ryan Leets, Alex, 18.
PENALTY TOTALS - Bismarck 12 minutes on six infractions, Alexandria six minutes on three infractions.
1ST STAR - Brandon Larson, Alex. 2ND STAR - Jon Swavely, Alex. 3RD STAR - Brandon Bahnemann, Alex.
FARGO-MHD 0 1 2 3
ALEXANDRIA 2 1 3 6
1. ALEX - Mikael Lickteig (Jerry Freismuth, Luke Nesper) 8:55, 2. ALEX - Brandon Bahnemann (Garrett Grimstad) 16:16.
3. FM - Marc Harrie (unassisted) 10:20 sh, 4. ALEX - Jens Nilsson (Mikael Lickteig, Luke Nesper) 11:24 pp.
5. FM - Robby Philipp (Marc Harrie, Sean McNeely) 7:31, 6. ALEX - Luke Nesper (Joe Hartman, Dustin Trail) 8:15 pp, 7. ALEX - Noah Nemgar (Larry Kincaid, Jon Swavely) 12:09 pp, 8. FM - Andrew Harrison (Jordy Trottier, Erick Galt) 12:56, 9. ALEX - Larry Kincaid (Joe Hartman) 19:13.
GOALIE SAVES - Elliot Okland, FM, 11, Adam Buegler, FM, 7; Ryan Leets, Alex, 33.
PENALTY TOTALS - Fargo-Moorhead 28 minutes on nine infractions, Alexandria 16 minutes on eight infractions.
1ST STAR - Ryan Leets, Alex. 2ND STAR - Mikael Lickteig, Alex. 3RD STAR - Luke Nesper, Alex.
UPCOMING GAMES - Friday, March 28, North Iowa at Alexandria, 7 p.m. at Runestone Community Center; Saturday, March 29, North Iowa at Alexandria, 7 p.m. at Runestone Community Center; Sunday, March 30, Fargo-Moorhead at Alexandria, 5 p.m. at Runestone Community Center.