With one North American Hockey League team already making plans for a trip, albeit a rather short one, to Frisco, Texas, for the Robertson Cup National Championship Tournament - the Amarillo Bulls will represent the South Division for the third straight year after defeating the defending national champion Texas Tornadoes, 5-3, on Tuesday - the Jamestown Ironmen are undoubtedly hoping they can be the next squad to contact their travel agent.
All it takes is a victory tonight over the visiting, and top-seeded, Soo Eagles.
With such a contest on the horizon - the opening face-off is slated for 7 p.m. at the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena - the tendency, and danger, is to look too far ahead; so instead we'll look back, and rehash how it is the Ironmen now find themselves on the cusp of making franchise history.
Forward Nico Sierra leads the Jamestown Ironmen in postseason points, tallying two goals and six assists in five games.
P-J file photo by Scott Reagle
We'll start at the beginning.
BETTER THAN EVER
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what was behind the Ironmen and their, well, brilliant regular-season turnaround.
Maybe it was the emergence of players like Luc Gerdes (27 goals, 48 points), Evan Ritt (11 goals, 38 points) or Tyler Dunagan (22 goals, 37 points), among others. Maybe it was the fact that Coach Dan Daikawa's aim of changing the franchise's culture - the team has been in existence in one form or another since 2005 and hadn't reached the playoffs in three years - was finally taking hold.
Maybe, and more probably, it was a combination of each of those factors that played a part.
Either way, the Ironmen, who had won just 19 games and lost a whopping 36 during the 2011-2012 season, won more contests this year (37 to be exact) than they ever have before.
And while the crew's reversal was indeed impressive - they had sprinted out to a 27-13-4 record over the first five months of the season - it was a late-season addition by Daikawa that cemented what was to be the Ironmen's deep run into the playoffs.
Mired in a four-game losing streak, Daikawa reacquired Joe Ballmer from the United States Hockey League's Sioux City Muskateers in early February. A day later, Ballmer was in the nets against what was at the time considered the North Division's best team, the Soo Eagles.
Ballmer stopped 42 of 44 shots, Dunagan scored a pair of goals, Ritt had an assist and the Ironmen were back on task and on their way.
A few days later, they embarked on a five-game winning streak, and eventually locked up the second seed (and a first-round bye) in the North Division playoffs.
The Ironmen's winning formula - top-notch goaltending, solid defensive play and well-timed scoring by a number of contributors - continued to pay dividends during their semifinal-round series with the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings.
In the opening game the squad tied a season high by scoring seven goals, while Ballmer was perfect between the pipes until late in the final period.
A day later, they took a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-five series after tallying three goals, and Ballmer, as per usual, kept the K-Wings in check by surrendering just one goal on the way to a 3-1 victory.
Armed with such a commanding advantage, it was little wonder that Jamestown, despite travelling to Kalamazoo, made easy work in the series-clincher, securing a 2-1 victory when Ritt, from Gerdes, beat opposing netminder Marcus Due-Boje at the 15:42 mark of the third period.
"We're playing our best hockey," Ballmer said at the time. "We've got a let's-win-this-thing kind of mentality (right now)."
They would need can-do mentality ahead of their next, and toughest, series.
THE NORTH FINALS
After having lost six of eight during the regular season to the Eagles, who went 41-14-5 over that span, not many expected the Ironmen to have much success.
Not many, it seems, save those on the Ironmen roster.
Travelling to Pullar Stadium in Michigan, Jamestown kept right on winning. The Ironmen dealt their top-seeded foes a 6-3 defeat in the opening contest as, among others, Ritt scored a pair of goals and Gerdes chipped in with one more. And then, in what was undoubtedly the most hard-fought battle of their postseason, they edged the hosts 1-0 to take what must surely have been a shock to the Eagles' fans on hand - a 2-0 series lead heading back to Jamestown.
ONE MORE WIN
That's the situation the Ironmen, who are at this point the lone undefeated team in the NAHL playoffs, find themselves in now. One win and they'll be competing for the NAHL national championship - for the first time in franchise history.
It won't be easy, of course; the Eagles, who lost three straight games on only one occasion this year, are fighting for their season. And no one wants to go home.
But on the cusp of history, both the players and the coaching staff are well aware of what's on the line.
"Everyone knows what's at stake," Daikawa said recently. "Everybody wants to be a national champion. It's our goal, and we've set out sights on the Robertson Cup."