The regular-season countdown ended last Tuesday for the Missouri Mavericks as they routed the St. Charles Chill 8-0 to secure the Central Hockey League’s Bud Poile Governors’ Cup season points title and home ice throughout the playoffs.
Now a new countdown has begun.
“We’re counting the days until the playoffs,” said Mavericks coach Scott Hillman, whose 44-17-2 squad will open postseason action at 7:05 p.m. April 4 at the Independence Events Center against an undetermined opponent. “We have three games left in the regular season, and there are still a lot of teams waiting to see where they finish. We know we’re No. 1, but second, third and fourth – and sixth, seventh and eighth are not yet determined.
“We can’t begin thinking about a playoff opponent, because we have no idea who we are going to play.”
But he does know that his team will not face a Game 7 playoff contest on an opponents’ ice. The past two years, the Mavericks lost in the final games of the semifinal series on the road and saw their seasons come to a disappointing end.
“We worked hard all season to make sure we finished in the top spot so we would have home ice,” Hillman continued. “That was really our only goal. Now, everyone knows what our goal is – bringing the championship cup home to Independence.”
The Mavericks have three regular-season games left, beginning with a contest at 7:05 tonight against the playoff-bound Tulsa Oilers (32-28-3) at the Events Center. The Mavericks and Oilers matchup again at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at the Events Center and the regular-season comes to an end Sunday afternoon with a road game against the Quad City Mallards in Moline, Ill.
“We have a lot of options in the last three games,” Hillman said. “But the main focus is to stay sharp. We want to go into the playoffs feeling good about the way we’re playing. I can tell you that Shane (Owen) will be in the net Friday, and after that, we’ll just have to wait and see.
“We’re so pleased with how Erno Suomalainen played the past two games (wins against Quad City and St. Charles) and he will play one of the three final games. We want both our goaltenders sharp and ready for the playoffs. You can’t really win a championship with one goaltender. The playoffs are just too long and demanding, and we feel like we have two of the best.”
This has been a hallmark season for the Mavericks. They are first in goals allowed (2.71 per game), second in goals scored per game (3.6), first in power play efficiency (23.4 percent), first in the penalty kill (87.7 percent), first with a 23-9 road record and second with a 21-8-2 home mark.
Owen leads the CHL in wins with 35 and team captain Sebastien Thinel has closed the season on a scoring rampage to jump to third place in total points (93). His linemates, Eric Castonguay and Andrew Courtney have each set new single-season records with 31 goals (see related story).
“Playing with Sebbie and Castie is special,” said Courtney, who has five goals in his last two games. “They don’t care who scores – no one on the team really cares who scores. All we care about is the end result. And our line has been playing really well.”
That’s a statement Thinel readily backed.
“This year, I don’t feel the same pressure I felt last year playing with younger guys like Toch (Kellan Tochkin) and Millsie (Kenton Miller). Castonguay is so much fun to play alongside and Courts can score any time he has the puck. But every line this year is contributing, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
While the bumps and bruises are apparent as you walk through the Mavericks’ locker room, Hillman said he does not want to take away the sense of urgency in the last three games of the season.
“We still want to win, and we are playing two teams that we have had success against,” the coach said. “This group hates to lose more than it enjoys winning. So we are going to be do doing everything possible to win the last three games because I don’t want a grumpy bunch of players heading into the playoffs.”