Rochester Ice Hawks head coach Nick Fatis paused, almost as if he was circumnavigating his two hands from thumb to thumb, just to make sure.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine.
"Yeah, nine, you are right," Fatis concluded. "That's sounds pretty good to say out loud."
The number is certainly making some noise in Rochester, as it now represents the number of years the hometown Ice Hawks have qualified for a spot in the USA Hockey Tier III National Tournament.
This year's trip was clinched last weekend, where Rochester took out the Minnesota Owls with a dominating performance in the third and deciding game in the best-of-three series March 11.
The Ice Hawks skated to a 9-1 victory in the finale, riding a four-point night from Jake Zarzycki (Clinton, Mich.) and 31 saves from Karel Popper (Maineville, Ohio) back into both the national tournament, and Bush Cup Finals.
Rochester will meet the Twin Cities Northern Lights in a best-of-three that will decide the MnJHL playoff champion beginning this coming weekend.
The national tournament is scheduled to run March 30 through April 3.
"It's nice to know we'll be playing still then," said Fatis. "We're excited to be back.""
But before the Ice Hawks could concern themselves with any plans for the end of the month, they were forced to deal with the Owls last weekend, and the series played out much more evenly than the lopsided Game 3 final would indicate.
Even that victory was close most of the way, as Rochester led by just a single goal (2-1) after 20 minuets of play after goals from Zarzycki and Antonio Baccari (Egg Harbor, N.J.) in the first.
The score was still 2-1 as the second period reached its midway point, but at 11:09, Rob Turner (Georgetown, Ontario) struck for a power play goal to give the Ice Hawks a 3-1 advantage.
Then, with 4:11 left in the period, Ryan Skalski (Exton, Pa.) made it 4-1 before Turner scored again at 18:25 to make it a four-goal game heading into the third.
Zarzycki buried his second of the game 6:18 into the third, and then Chris Williford (St. Clair Shores, Mich.), Shaun Lymer (Cobble Hill, British Columbia) and Baccari added on to make it a 9-1 final.
"What's funny is, just to get them pumped up before the game, I said let's go out and win 9-1," Fatis said. "No way did I think it would actually happen. That team we were playing was just too talented. But we really got on a roll, and pucks were going in. I thought it might have been our best game of the year."
The timing couldn't' have been better. Tyler Beasley (Indianapolis, Ind.) scored twice to help lead Rochester to a 6-2 victory in the series opener March 9, but Minnesota responded the next night.
The Owls scored three first period goals to build a 3-1 lead in Game 2, and then held on the rest of the way for a 4-2 victory March 10.
Jerid Adamson (Isanti, Minn.), Jacob Malwitz (Thief River Falls, Minn.) and Sheldon Kihle (Williston, N.D.) each scored for Minnesota in that opening frame, and Robert Erickson (Coon Rapids, Minn.) added one late to seal it for the Owls.
That had the two teams back to Rochester March 11, where one would be sent home for good. The Ice Hawks made certain it wasn't them.
"We had everything to play for," said Fatis. "It was our biggest game of the year, so to come out and play the way we did, I was very proud of them."
Lights survive and advance
After earning a bye in the opening round of the Bush Cup Playoffs, the Twin Cities Northern Lights made their postseason debut this past weekend.
As expected, it was a sluggish one.
"The weekend off didn't do us a whole lot of good," admitted head coach Erik Largen. "It took us some time to catch up to the speed of the game again."
Their opponent didn't make it easy. The Hudson Crusaders had played the week before, sweeping a two-game series from the Dells Ducks in the opening round of the postseason.
That momentum carried over in the opener with Twin Cities, as Hudson skated to a 4-3 overtime victory to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
Matthew Lindquist (Thief River Falls, Minn.) scored his second goal of the game 8 minutes, 30 seconds into overtime to give the Crusaders the first game of the weekend.
Twin Cities would slowly start to find its legs, and by the end of Saturday, the Northern Lights would have the series tied after winning in overtime of Game 2.
Lukas Sumerauer (Velesin, Czech Republic) scored the game-winner just under two minutes into overtime, finishing off a 2-1 victory. Gleb Kulikov (Dmitrov, Russia) assisted on the goal. Kulikov also scored the first goal of the game, giving Twin Cities a 1-0 lead with a power play tally midway through the second period.
That goal would stand until 4:25 of the third when Hudson tied it on a goal from Clint Kimps (Bayport, Wis.), but Sumerauer scored early in overtime to force a third game.
"I was just glad he got it done right away," Largen said. "The longer that thing goes, who knows what happens. We didn't want to be done."
That much was evident the following night, as Twin Cities put the series away with a 5-2 victory in Game 3.
Kulikov, Dominic Shuttleworth (Fairbanks, Alaska) and Tyler Balaguy (Trabuco Canyan, Calif.) each scored first period goals, Eric Shand (San Dimas, Calif.) added one in the second, and Gordon Wells (Novi, Mich.) deposited the Lights' fifth goal into an empty net late in the third to send the Northern Lights into their fourth USA Hockey Tier III National Tournament in the past 10 years.
"It feels good to get that accomplished," said Largen. "It's been a long year, so to see not just the team, but the whole organization get back to this point is pretty rewarding for all of us."
Twin Cities will play in the national tournament March 30 to April 3. Before then, the Northern Lights have one more trophy to play for in the MnJHL, as they face Rochester in a best-of-three beginning Friday, March 16 for the Bush Cup.
"We'd like to finish it off, no question," Largen admitted. "This is why you spend all year working hard, so you can play for a championship. We get to do that."