A long and difficult regular season has reached its final chapter for the Laredo Bucks.
Finding themselves on the outside looking in for the first time in program history, the Bucks (22-33-8, 52 points) enter their final three games of the regular season two games back of rival Rio Grande Valley (24-34-6, 54 points) in the race for the Berry Division’s final playoff spot.
A hazardous road of injuries and distractions has led Laredo to this do-or-die junction, but President/Head Coach Terry Ruskowki said the time for excuses has passed.
Win or go home. It’s the final countdown.
In the corner
“Terry’s always said, when you back an animal in the corner, what’s it going to do? It’s going to come out fighting,” said Bucks veteran forward Jeff Bes. “That’s what we need to do this weekend.
“We’ve got to look at it like we’re the caged animal in the corner, and we’ve got to come out fighting and go at them and let the chips fall where they may.”
The attitude of Bes sums up that of his team.
The Bucks have never missed the playoffs in their nine years in the Central Hockey League, and many of the players are very aware of the weight of the legacy they carry on their shoulders.
It makes for a regular season finale unlike anything Laredo has experienced before.
“We’ve never been in this position before,” said veteran defenseman Serge Dube. “Usually, with at least three if not 10 games (left in the season), we’re kind of on cruise control and not necessarily going through the motions, but working on systems, making sure everybody stays healthy for playoffs.
“Now we’re at the other end of the stick and it’s kind of unknown territory for us and it’s pretty disappointing at the same time.”
Ruskowski acknowledged the pressure of the final week has been intense, but he said the challenges of being the underdog weren’t something new to the program.
“There’s a lot of stress and pressures, but it’s been there the whole year,” Ruskowski said. “Trying to find players and injuries and all those situations and guys quitting on you … it’s been a hectic and troublesome season. It all boils down to the weekend.”
With the stakes as high as they’ve ever been, nobody expects the weekend to disappoint on thrills or emotion.
“It should be an interesting three games,” said Dube.
What it will take
With three games left on the schedule, Laredo needs to win at least two games more than the Killer Bees to reach the postseason.
The Bucks will be tested twice by the Texas Brahmas (33-27-5, 71 points), first on the road tonight and then again in Laredo on Sunday, and will host Missouri (36-22-6, 78 points) tomorrow night to round out the weekend’s three-game spree.
Down in the Valley, the Killer Bees face Missouri tonight and then wrap up their season against the Brahmas tomorrow.
“We know (the playoffs are) within our reach,” Dube said. “It’s not like we’re playing the best teams in the league; we beat Missouri a couple weeks ago here and then (against) Texas, they’ve all been one-goal games, if not overtime or shootouts.
“It’s games we know we can win.”
The Bucks have been hampered in their efforts to prepare for the final games by the recent monster truck show in the LEA.
The facility has been without ice all week, making it difficult to prepare game plans for the weekend’s opponents.
“We’re changing the system up a little bit, tying to get more aggressive, and obviously we need to practice that and show them that on the ice,” Ruskowski said. “Having no ice time is a little troublesome.
“Maybe some time off will help some guys’ injuries, but we’ve got to be mentally prepared to know the system and play the system, and that’s something we stray from once in a while.”
Ruskowski said the health of the team isn’t ideal, but added the Bucks are past the point where anyone can let injuries hold them back.
“We’ve still got some nicks and pains, but it’s the time of the season where you just have to put that aside and just focus on what you’ve got to do to be successful; that’s the bottom line,” Ruskowski said. “It’s mind over matter right now and we have to do whatever we can to win.”
Though players said they felt hopefully optimistic about their chances this weekend, they did admit feeling disappointed with the position they’re in.
The question of how they got here is one the Bucks struggle with.
Bes said the swirling rumors of the program possibly making a move to the junior level after the season were not a distraction that pierced the locker room.
“We can’t control what’s being said outside the dressing room or what’s being done outside the dressing room,” Bes said. “We’re a team inside the dressing room and we can only control what we do in the dressing room and out on the ice.
“That’s our job and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”
Ruskowski said he did his best to address the rumors in an upfront and honest manner the moment he’d caught wind of them.
What he couldn’t say, however, was how successful his efforts had been.
“About a month ago, when word (of the potential move) came out, we had a (team) meeting and I was honest with the guys,” Ruskowski said. “I told them exactly what the scenario was and what could happen and what couldn’t happen.
“You try to nip it in the bud as best you can to make sure the guys are focused, but I can’t think for the guys; I don’t know what they’re thinking. I hope it wasn’t a distraction, but it definitely could be a distraction. I don’t know if it was or not.”
Regardless of the reason why, Bes said it was undeniable the team had underperformed.
“You can make excuses,” Bes said. “We’ve had major injuries this year, we’ve lost games we probably should have won, but all and all, we didn’t play up to our capabilities.”
It all leads to this final weekend.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
Possibly, the Bucks’ last stand.
No word or update has been passed down from the Bucks’ ownership about the future of Laredo’s professional hockey team, but the late surge in attendance owner Glenn Hart had hoped for never materialized and no signs have been raised to suggest a reversal of direction.
Saturday and Sunday may be the final days of professional hockey in Laredo for the foreseeable future.
It’s a thought Ruskowski and his team has tried to avoid for weeks, but soon there will be no impending games left to hide behind.
It will have to be confronted.
“It ran through my mind a couple times and obviously it’s very sad,” Ruskowski said. “We’ve worked so hard for the last nine or 10 years to make this a successful program. It’s very sad for me, but I’ve been more thinking of what we should do to prepare for Texas.
“I know it will hit home when I drive back to the house Sunday evening. It’s going to hit me and I’ll probably be very emotional about it.”
Some players have trouble even imagining a Laredo without professional hockey.
“As a player from the start, it would be a sad thing to see,” Dube said. “Not that the junior level isn’t quality hockey; it’s just (that) you see (the Bucks) as a pro team and we’ve always seen it as a pro team at the pro level and it would be tough to see that go.”
Bes said the end of professional hockey in Laredo would be a painful thing if it came to pass.
“To be honest, I haven’t even thought of that; it hurts,” Bes said. “It would be a sad day for that to happen, but life goes on.”
If that’s the way it’s going to be, however, Bes has one final wish before skating out the door.
“We have the best fans in the (Central Hockey League) and we’re really hoping for their support Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “We need every little bit we can get and we could really use that boost.”