The Fresno Monsters have been downright dominant during the regular season in each of their first three seasons in the Western States Hockey League.
For whatever reason, they are just not the same team come playoff time and it's a riddle head coach Bryce Dale hopes that he can solve this season.
After playoff disappointments ended their first two seasons in the league, Dale and assistant coach Jay Johnson decided to start from scratch last season and rethink how they build their teams.
The Monsters of old were predicated on size, physical play and more size. This of course, made them tough to play against but they may have lacked the top-end talent that teams like Idaho and the Phoenix squads of yesteryear put together.
They sculpted last season's roster with a solid core of returning veterans, with the rest made up of speedy and highly skilled young guns, that weren't expected to be with the team for more than one year.
What transpired over the regular season was more of the same, as the Monsters were once again the top dog from start to finish.
They won their first 11 games to begin the season and didn't lose their first game until dropping the final game of a three-game set against the eventual Thorne Cup Champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads, in late October.
They answered the defeat by winning their next 12 games, before dropping their first and only regular season series, as the El Paso Rhinos took two of three hotly contested games in Texas.
The Monsters faced the toughest schedule of any team at the Showcase in Las Vegas and responded by winning all four of their games convincingly, including a redemption victory over El Paso.
They ended a near flawless regular season by winning their final 15 games and solidifying not only the top spot in the Western Division but in the entire league, yet again.
After taking care of business against the fourth-seeded Arizona Redhawks in the opening round of the playoffs, the Monsters were then set to host the upstart Valencia Flyers for three with the division title on the line.
Although they didn't play up to their full potential, the Monsters squeaked by the Flyers and won their first-ever Western Division Title by score of 4-2.
They finally won the division but Dale was not impressed, as he felt his team coasted throughout the series and were lucky to get by the Flyers in a series that could have gone either way.
Despite his uneasiness, he had to feel good about his teams' chances in El Paso, where the first-annual Thorne Cup Championship Series was to be held.
The round-robin style tournament pitted the league's three division winners and host team (or replacement for the host team, who also happened to win their division) against one another.
Not surprisingly, the Monsters went in to the tournament as favorites and kicked off the festivities with a highly anticipated rematch with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, who were looking to avenge the only series they lost all season, in Fresno.
Despite outshooting the Jr. Steelheads in that game, the Monsters' power play struggled and they fell by a score of 3-1, which seemed to begin a spiral of poor play.
They looked as though they bounced back nicely in game two, after jumping out to a 3-0 first period lead over the Dallas Ice Jets.
They went on to allow six unanswered goals over the final two periods however and wound up being hit with their second consecutive loss, something they hadn't done all regular season.
They played the finale against the El Paso Rhinos the next day with nothing on the line, as neither team had a win to their credit and both knew they wouldn't be playing for the Thorne Cup the next day.
The Monsters led twice in their final game of the season but again, were bitten by a comeback as the Rhinos scored twice late and took the 3-2 win, making the best team in the regular season the only winless squad at the Thorne Cup Championship Series.
Dale, one of the most competitive guys in the league, was not at all pleased with the effort his team exerted over their final six games of the post-season. He sensed his players got complacent at a time where other teams were picking up their play and suffered the consequences once again.
Dale attributes last season's post-season collapse to the overall mentality in the locker room, where he felt that some of the older players didn't' step-up at the right time and lead by example.
Although he wasn't happy with the overall mentality of his team in the playoffs, I have to give Dale credit for really stepping up the standards in Fresno.
I don't want to see they were lax on team policies but over their first couple of seasons in the league, the Monsters may not have been as strict on some players as they could have been. Often times it seemed that if said player was performing on the ice, some conduct that could be detrimental to the team was overlooked. I'm not talking about serious offenses but an overall lack of discipline in some cases.
Last season Dale changed that mindset and sent a message right in the middle of the season by giving the boot to two players that were becoming "cancers" in the locker room. They were both fantastic hockey players but it didn't matter to Dale, as he was more interested in setting the precedent that needed to be in place.
This sort of "changing of the guard" will go a long way in helping to build the kind of character teams that Dale wants, which will be just as skilled as in year's past but more dedicated and focused on playing the game.
Regardless of what you may bring to the ice, Dale's message is clear, "if you're not here to focus and play hockey, then don't bother coming to Fresno."
It may seem like a small change but this is exactly the type of attitude that forces players to work harder in the playoffs and focus even more when the pressure is on.
In two fantastic seasons in Fresno, Dale has proven he's one of the top coaches in the league and even with the playoff struggles the Monsters have endured, there is no doubt they are one of the elite franchises in all of junior hockey.
Players Moving Up:
The Monsters pride themselves on not only a winning tradition but also their ability to move players up. Three players from their 2011-2012 roster will play college hockey in the fall, a number Dale would like to see go up next season.
Marcus Harbison was one of the top goaltenders each of his two seasons in the league and has been rewarded with a spot at Suffolk University. Defenseman David Kann will also head east and play for Becker College and lastly, one of the original Monsters, Rob Kolander, will head home to Michigan and play for Adrian College.
Gunnar White moves up to play for the Monsters NAHL squad this season, while leading-scorer Nick McKee has hooked on with the Georgetown Raiders of the Tier II OPJHL.
The forward situation this season is going to be a double-edged sword for Dale.
With a lot of players moving on, he has a chance to build his team from almost scratch, while also creating a new attitude in Fresno.
That being said, his top six forwards, who combined for over 300 points, will not return to the team as many have moved on or aged out of junior hockey.
Justin Plate and Conner Osborne are two guys returning that are expected to play big-time minutes.
Plate was hurt most of last season and just narrowly missed making the NAHL Monsters team last week. If he's healthy, he's one of the top forwards in the league.
Osborne is a kid that came to Fresno late last season and saw limited playing time down the stretch. He's on the small side but Dale loves his skill and tenacity.
Also returning is Kyle Godfrey, who put up a solid 41 points while playing on the checking line last season.
Jeffrey Salzbrunn will also bring some junior hockey experience to the rebuilt lineup, after playing last season with the Chicago Hitmen of the NA3HL.
The Monsters are also going to be showcasing more of a local feel this season, as they have signed two forwards from their ever-expanding youth program.
JJ Barlow and Carter Dahl are both very young but should grow as the season goes along and benefit from playing in front of the hometown crowd.
Dale likes the look of the forwards he has signed thus far but realizes it's still a work in progress, with 13 forward from last season's roster now gone.
He is still working on picking up some "game changers" and will surely make use of his eight import spots.
The back end will definitely be the strength of the Monsters this year, as they return five defenseman from last season.
Michael Freeman has the potential to be the best of the bunch, after a spectacular rookie season.
Dale likes his leadership skills, as well as the way he plays the game and feels that with a season already under his belt, that Freeman will continue to blossom into one of the best d-men in the league.
Also returning is a svelte Tommy Nourie.
The skill has always been there for the Morgan Hill, California native, there's no doubt about it but he played last season a few pounds heavier than he's used to and it showed at times.
Dale and the rest of the Fresno staff were appalled when Nourie walked in for camp last week, nearly 50 pounds down and ready to go.
An in-shape Nourie can only mean good things for the Fresno defense.
Mark Shroyer and Cameron Coburn also return and both were solid last season.
Coburn is a WSHL veteran who can play both forward and defense but has seemed to have found his spot on Dale's blue line.
Shroyer is a young kid out of Colorado and once he figures out his size and how to use it, can be a real solid defenseman.
Both will benefit form more playing time this season.
Dale is also working on bringing back Tyler Lazarek, who played the last two seasons with the Monsters and was arguably their best d-man last year.
They still have a few things to work out but if he can get him signed, their defense is pretty much set.
The Monsters have also signed a youngster out of St. Louis by the name of Dan Fitzgerald, who the coaching staff is very high on.
With a rebuilt offense, the defense may end up facing a little more pressure than they're used to but Dale has a solid group of returners that will be ready for the challenge.
After two spectacular seasons Marcus Harbison has moved on to college and has vacated the starter's role in Fresno.
Nobody else returns so as of right now, the job is still up for grabs but Dale really likes the two guys he's already signed.
Brenden Manquen is a Fresno native who also has WSHL experience, playing last season with both El Paso and Long Beach.
They've also brought in Justin Hubert, who was very impressive at last week's camp.
A third goaltender will be signed in the coming weeks and all three will battle it out in the pre-season for the top spot.
The Monsters 2012-2013 lineup will be riddled with new faces but one thing is for sure, their attitude will change.
Dale feels he can find a good balance of rebuilding his team, while not taking a step back in the super competitive Pacific Division.
He knows the road will be tough, as he praised Valencia, San Diego and Long Beach for their recent efforts and the overall direction they're headed in, while also mentioning that both Ontario and Bay Area should compete in year one.
He is also excited for his out of division schedule, as the Monsters will open the season with a home set against the always-tough Texas Jr. Brahmas and while also hosting the upstart Salt Lake City Moose.
Their out of division road schedule could be the roughest in the league, as they play at both the Seattle Totems and Southern Oregon Spartans, the two former NORPAC powers, who will both be looking to avenge losses to the Monsters at the Showcase last season.
The Monsters may not dominate the regular season like we're used to seeing but they will certainly be more prepared each and every time they play, including playoff games, which is what Dale wants to improve upon.
It's hard to imagine such a dominant team wanting to change their attitude but Dale wants a team that is built to last and their regular season record, as nice as it looks, means nothing to him.
The Monsters are going to be vastly different but Dale all but guarantees they will be a much better playoff team this time around.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League