After what feels like an eternity, the Diamond Energy Female Midget AAA Wildcats are back to their league schedule this weekend.
The Wildcats are nearing the end of their third break of at least three weeks between regular season games this year.
The first stretch spanned from November 19 to December 16, the next from December 17 and over the Christmas break until January 6, and this current break from January 21 until February 10 - this coming Saturday.
"I know a lot of people ask 'when you get a break how does it affect you?', but we've played enough games this year and our kids have played enough games over the years that it really shouldn't be a big deal," said Wildcats head coach Terry Pavely. "You hope that they're maybe a little bit more hungry to compete against somebody else rather than your teammates. We're not going to let the fact that we've had a little bit of a stretch off be an excuse if we don't play the way we need to play."
The effort has been cranked up, especially this past week.
"Well we've been practicing with lots of intensity and still have been doing regular stuff like workouts. I think it just all goes back to practice - working hard to still stay in shape, because it's a long break," said veteran defenceman Toni Theaker.
Her head coach echoed similar thoughts, adding that while the team is looking forward to facing a different opponent, hockey is hockey.
"If you've got some competitors it doesn't matter, even in practice - the jerseys are different colours, you're playing against someone, and you should want to win," noted Pavely. "We've seen some pretty good compete from our girls in our practices and our practices have been pretty good, pretty high-level. We're just ready to play - our goal in our last five games is we want to win a minimum of three of the last five games, and really have a good stretch heading into playoffs."
The team will need to stay in shape for the schedule that lies ahead to close out the regular season. The Wildcats play the final five games in just a nine-day window.
However, that compact stretch, culminating with a road weekend against the Saskatoon Stars, is neither unwelcome or a scheduling mistake.
"When we look at our schedule and we go to the scheduling meeting, we probably put more thought into it than other teams. We try to play the team that we think is going to be one of the top teams at the end of the year... we want to get playoff ready.You play a team like Saskatoon at the end of the year, that's going to get you playoff ready. There's nobody better to prepare you," said Pavely.
"Having a little bit of a grind [is important] because once playoffs hit, you're playing every second night sometimes, three in five nights, sometimes back-to-back on weekends. So we want to make sure that we have a tough stretch heading into the playoffs. If you look at our schedule, it's going to be a grind. Hopefully that will prepare us for the grind of playoffs."
The final stretch kicks off with a road weekend against the Battlefords Sharks - a team the Wildcats beat 6-3 and 7-1 at home in mid-November.
"Hopefully we win both games, get six points," said Theaker of the match up. "But also, to create good things - maybe try some new plays or something like that, as they are lower in the standings. But we can't take that for granted either, because whoever shows up is going to win."
The fifth-place Wildcats (10-9-1-3) and seventh-place Sharks (7-18-0-0) face off Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
One story line to note head into the weekend:
Forward Taylor Lind's 104 points leave her in a tie for tops on the Wildcats all-time scoring list. She's tied with last year's captain Chloe Smith who is in her first year of eligibility with the U of S women's hockey team.
Lind will be looking for similar success as the last weekend against Battlefords where she racked up 9 points (5 G, 4 A) in two games.