Sometimes, the schedule maker hits the nail on the head, with the end result a matchup made in Central Hockey League heaven.
The first-place Rapid City Rush (22-8, 44 points) visit the Independence Events Center for two games this weekend, and the second-place Missouri Mavericks (20-9-1, 41 points) can't wait for the challenge that lies ahead.
“I can't think of a better game than having the Rush come to town, with all that's on the line this weekend,” said Mavericks coach Scott Hillman, whose team is still reeling from 4-3 and 7-4 home losses to the expansion Brampton Beast last weekend.
“The Rush are struggling a bit now, and if we are fortunate enough to have a perfect weekend, we can take over first place. But we certainly have to play better than we did last weekend, that's for sure.”
The Rush have lost three in a row, including a 3-0 setback Tuesday night in Tulsa where Shane Madolora (whom the Mavericks edged 4-2 on New Year's Eve) was perfect in the net.
Tim Boron, the top-ranked goalie in the CHL with a 19-5 record and 2.33 goals against average, was not in the net against the Oilers, but count on him being in net for the Rush this weekend.
So will the Mavericks’ Shane Owen, who won the CHL Goaltender of the Month Award for December. But he has yet to win in the new year.
“I'm not thinking about the last two games – except parts where I can improve my game,” said Owen, who is second in the league in wins (17-6) and fourth in goals against average (2.59). “All any of us are thinking about is this weekend with the Rush.
“We had two tough losses. (Brampton) had two goals the first night they hit the pucks in from the air – you except to see someone like Sidney Crosby do that, but two in one game? Come on!
“Then (Steve Howes) lit us up (with four goals and an assist) on Saturday. That's in the past. Coach has us working hard this week, and for me personally, I'm not having any problems with my confidence.
“Sure, you hate to lose two at home. But Brampton is a pro team, we're a pro team, and in this league, any team can win on any given night. We just have to get back on track this weekend.”
Hillman, who replaced all but one member of last year's defensive unit (Dave Pszenyczny), employed a unique practice twist this week to help his new defensemen concentrate on positioning.
“It's just called sticks turned over, where your defensemen hold their blade and have to work on the ice with their stick handles,” the coach explained. “Somewhere, this team has lost its fundamental approach to the game, and we're going to get it back.
“When you're in the defensive zone, you have to have your stick on the (opponent's) puck. If you don't, there is separation and that puck is going to wind up in the back of the net. If your stick is not on the puck, you're just burning calories out there.”
That comment drew a nod of approval from veteran defenseman and locker room leader Matt Stephenson.
“That drill is more about positioning than anything else,” said Stephenson, who still sports a massive bruise on his thigh from diving in front of a puck during the Brampton series. “We have to play better defensively, and we will. I can't promise the results this weekend, but I can promise we will play better defensively.”
Hillman said the stakes could not be bigger at the midway point of what has promise as a special season.
“We can take over first place with four points,” Hillman said. “If that's not enough to get you motivated, I don't know what will. Shane is fine; he had a tough two games, we all had a tough two games (against Brampton) and I know the boys are going to come out fired up and ready to go.
“And like we've done so many times in the past, we're asking for help from our great fans. The electricity in this building is just amazing when they fill it up. We had a lot of success the last time we went to Rapid (winning two of three games), and if we win two games this weekend, we'll reward our fans by being atop the standings.”