The Lake Tahoe Icemen have been practicing almost daily in preparation for the playoffs that begin this weekend against the Bellingham Blazers.
When the Icemen hit the ice Friday, March 23, for the first game of a best two-out-of-three series, it will have been nearly three weeks since they last competed.
"There are challenges with having so much time off, but these guys aren't just taking the days off," said Icemen head coach Mickey Lang. "We're practicing, working and putting ourselves in game situations every day even though we're not getting the actual games."
Lang is trying to keep the Icemen in shape during their time off, putting them through tough conditioning. Half the practices consist of different kinds of sprints across the length of the ice combined with quick stops.
"The conditioning is a lot harder than any other place I've been," said Icemen team captain Phil Heisse. "The altitude and thin air make it even harder. But that helps us because other teams aren't used to playing at this high of elevation."
Lang, a former East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) most valuable player just a few years ago, looks like he can still outskate most of his team. He joins in on the conditioning, a little, with his players.
"It's brutal, it's so hard to breathe," Lang said. "I can't last long. I go one time and I'm dead. I make them go 10 times. It's brutal at the end."
The Icemen have made the playoffs each of the last years after winning just two games for the entire season the year before. Heisse has been a part of the huge turnaround. The Icemen went from winning two games, to earning a playoff berth, to earning the No. 2 seed and first round bye over the past three seasons.
"We're getting ourselves on the map," Heisse said. "People are starting to see how good of an organization we are and want to come play here. Leading a team like this, in front of fans like we have, has been a lot of fun."
Being "on the map" is what helped assistant team captain Paul Frys come to Tahoe. The forward has been on scoring binge the entire season, especially in the second half where he has put together a 30-game scoring streak. He's helped the Icemen become one of the top scoring teams in the Western States Hockey League, and a lot of fun to watch with all the offense.
"I've had a lot of fun here," Frys said. "I'm glad he brought me in. We're a good team. Hopefully we're gonna make a good run in playoffs. I'm excited."
Frys said the key to the Icemen advancing to the next round is out working the Blazers, just like they've done all season. Tahoe had faced Bellingham six times and has 12 points to show for it. The Blazers earned just one point by forcing one contest into overtime.
Lang is also excited because for the first time this season, his Icemen will be healthy heading into postseason. He doesn't have any specific goals to determine Icemen playoff success, he just wants the team to play like he knows it can.
And he loves that they get to play at home.
"We love playing here, especially this year because we've had such great support from the fans," Lang said. "As the season has moved along, there are more and more people in here and it's been getting packed. More people are talking about the Icemen. And these guys do a great job in the community. They're always working with kids, working with charity skates, around town and the people have been terrific."
The games Friday and Saturday, March 23-24, start at 7 p.m. at South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena located at 1176 Rufus Blvd. The best two-of-three series ends Sunday, if necessary, with the puck drop at 2:30 p.m.
Diedra Wallis, who has sung the national Anthem before Sacramento Kings home games, will sing Star-Spangled Banner.
A Sierra-at-Tahoe avalanche dog will ceremoniously drop the puck Friday night
The Icemen will hold a 50/50 raffle Friday and Saturday for a center ice shot for prizes donated by Sierra-at-Tahoe.
There will be an Icemen autograph signing after the games in the lobby.
Tickets are $6 with children 6-and-under receiving free admission. Parking is free.
There will be a warm-up special, Coors Light will be $2 and Deschutes will be $4 from 6:15 p.m. until puck drop.
"We've had a very successful season but we're not ready to stop," Heisse said. "We're looking to make a deep run. If we play our game, we can do that."