Buckle up. The last month of the hockey season could be fun.
There are four teams battling for the final two playoff spots in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the Quad City Storm being one of them. The Storm are currently tied for ninth with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs with 37 points in the standings. One point ahead of them — and anything but firmly holding onto a playoff spot — are the Macon Mayhem and the Birmingham Bulls.
That makes this week, with two games against Roanoke and one against Birmingham, a pretty big one.
"We've been saying for a while this our playoff push now but realistically, this is the playoffs now," forward Stephen Gaul said. "Honestly, this is the most important weekend of the year."
Though it's something often repeated, the Storm truly are in control of their own destiny. They have at least two and as many as five games in hand over the other three teams battling for the final two playoff spots.
It makes it pretty simple down the stretch — win and the Storm are in.
"I always like challenges and I think the boys are pretty positive in there," head coach Dave Pszenyczny said. "We've just got to take care of business, win our games in hand when they come forth. We've got our work cut out for ourselves."
It's a lot of pressure put on the final 15 games of the season, but the Storm welcome it.
"We like it," Gaul said. "You obviously want to be in a better position where this wouldn't matter but it's good to have this momentum building up before the playoffs so that when you get there, you've kind of been training for this the whole year as opposed to kind of coasting into the playoffs so you're not playing your best hockey.
"We want to be playing our best hockey going in, peaking at the right time."
It's better than the alternative. Last year, the Storm's playoff fate was all but determined as Quad City was nearing elimination at this point of the season.
So to be in a hunt is something the players relish.
"Right now, we expect to be in the playoffs," Gaul said. "Last year was, eh, if we make it, that would be cool, but this year, we expect to be there and it's great. That's what you do it for, playoff hockey and to try to win a championship."
Educational debut: Jake Toporowski's debut as head coach last Friday ended with a 5-3 loss to Evansville, but the Storm assistant coach felt it was a good experience.
"I didn't feel out of place, I thought I did a good job for the most part," Toporowski said. "I enjoyed it, not the result, obviously, but I wasn't out of place. I thought I did fine."
Pszenyczny thought Toporowski did a good job, but might have made a different move after the Thunderbolts scored two goals in 10 seconds in the third period.
"He called a timeout; I look at it differently. I probably would have yanked the goalie, but he called a timeout and we got a result out of it," Pszenyczny said. "I look at it as pulling the goalie is like a timeout, and that's saving a timeout toward the end, but sometimes you do have to call a timeout. I have no problem with him calling it."
Deadline moves: The Storm made a pair of moves at Monday's trade deadline, moving defenseman Sean Kacerosky to the Macon Mayhem and then acquiring forward Cole Golka from the Birmingham Bulls in exchange for Tommy Tsicos.
The Kacerosky move completes the offseason trade that brought forward Dakota Klecha to the Storm, while the Golka move was made in an attempt to improve the team heading into the final stretch.
Golka played 40 games with the Bulls this year, scoring three goals and adding 14 assists. He joined Birmingham out of college last year, where he played with the College of St. Scholastica.
Both teams get a chance to see the immediate returns of the trade as the Storm take on the Bulls Sunday.
"It's definitely excitement, and there's obviously a little bit of sadness involved. You get to know people and you get comfortable in a place, but I'm really excited to be here," Golka said. "You don't treat (Sunday) as any other game. Right now, you've got to win games and it's the same with those guys. Feeling's the same."
Tsicos leaves as the Storm's franchise leader with 90 games played, which made the move tough, but Pszenyczny felt it was necessary to improve the team.
"We were looking to make trades. I put everybody on the block Saturday," he said. "Tommy gave everything here, and what we got is going to be crucial for us. I think it's going to be good for both teams. It wasn't an easy decision by any means, I had to put personal feelings aside. ... I've got to make the team better, and if that's losing Tommy, that has to happen."
Golka is ready for the chance to come from one team battling for a playoff spot to another.
"Every game's important, you've got to come and battle every night," Golka said. "Teams pick up guys at the deadline they think are going to make them better. Going to a team that's in a playoff spot or at the top of the leaderboard, you could be battling for a spot, maybe in and out of a lineup. That's not what I'm looking to do. I'm looking to come here and produce and help this team make playoffs."
Storm sign Ford: The Storm signed forward Gus Ford to an amateur tryout agreement Tuesday.
Ford, 24, joins the Storm following a four-year college career with Division-III Northland College. In 104 career games, the Tillsonburg, Ontario, native scored 28 goals and added 65 assists for 93 points.
It likely won't be the only amateur signing the Storm make with the college season winding down.
"I just figured, you know what, give this kid a shot," Pszenyczny said. "He's got a good, quick release with his shot. ... Giving him an opportunity to see what the pro game is all about will really help him out."