Two years, two trips to the Junior Tier III Hockey National Championships.
The Bellingham Blazers have quickly cemented themselves as the elite team in the Northern Pacific Hockey League. Now, they must demonstrate they are one of the top teams in the nation.
A year ago, the Blazers entered the NPHL Cascade Cup Playoffs as the underdog, a mere No. 3 seed after a 22-16-2 season. They managed to sweep the Eugene Generals and then top the West Sound Warriors in five games to win the Cascade Cup.
It sent the team to Rochester, Minn., where the Blazers lost their first two games by a combined score of 13-0.
"Last year, we surprised ourselves when we made it," Blazers captain Mason Wade said. "We were kind of a cinderella story, so I think this year will be a lot better."
The Blazers won the third and final game 3-2, but failed to make it out of pool play. The win wasn't for nothing - it showed that the Blazers were capable of playing with the best teams in the nation (only 12 teams make the championship).
"It took us the first game and half to get our feet under us when we got there," Bellingham coach Mark Collins said. "Once we started playing well, we realized we can beat these teams."
This season, the Blazers dominated the NPHL. They went 35-5 to earn a No. 1 seed, topping the Tri-Cities Outlaws in the first round of the playoffs. Once again, they met up with the Warriors, who pushed the Blazers to the limit, but a Micky Turner goal in overtime in Game 5 of the Cascade Cup Championships sealed another cross-country trip for Bellingham.
Bellingham now has something to prove - that they can compete with anyone. The Blazers certainly have the talent and experience to beat any team in the nation. They return 11 players who played in last year's tournament and boast the NPHL's offensive (Cody Rich) and defensive (Scott Hansen) MVPs.
"I think having experience at nationals helps us moving forward this year," Collins said. "Last year, we were in awe a little bit when we got there. This year, we're more focused on the process and not the event."
The Blazers also added players like forward Boris Knyazev and defenseman Kacey Walker to the team this year.
Knyazev scored 12 points in the NPHL playoffs this season, including five in the deciding Game 5 of the Cascade Cup.
"Boris has got an unbelievable skillset and is a natural goal scorer," Collins said.
Walker, who has a powerful slapshot from the point, led the team in powerplay goals in the playoffs with three.
Walker will combine with Hansen on the blue line to form one of the best defensemen tandems in the nation.
On the first forward line is Wade, Rich and Gerin Hohl, who scored three goals in the playoffs.
"We rely on our first line as much as we can, but I'm also going to play so we don't have to play that first line against the other team's top line," Collins said.
The Blazers aren't too shabby after their top guys, either. Bellingham is one of the few teams that uses all four lines consistently and that should help the Blazers in tournament play.
"That's just it," Wade said. "We have four lines that can play. So anybody at any given time can be a game-changer. So it's pretty nice to not have all the pressure on a few guys."
With the stars and the depth, the Blazers have set their sights high - make it to the final four - and Collins believes once they get there, anybody can win it.
The road won't be easy with the format changing to the top team in each bracket plus one wild card. Who gets to the final four and who misses out may come down to goal differential, Collins said.
So it will be important for the Blazers to score goals, something they struggled with last year when they got shutout in the first two games.
"We're well aware of how difficult the competition will be," Collins said. "The fact that we won this league (NPHL), it's great and it was a good run. The boys are proud of the success we had, but the boys understand we got to step it up to an even higher level."
The tournament isn't just about competing, though.
With a group of young hockey players, Collins knows this is a chance for coaches and scouts to look at his players. The tournament opens the door for the 16- to 20-year olds to move forward in their hockey careers.
"I've always been a big proponent of moving guys on as much as I can," Collins said. "This is a big stepping stone for a lot of kids."
Bellingham begins the tournament against a team from the Northern American Tier III Hockey League on Thursday, April 3, in Simsbury, Conn.