Arizona Sundogs forward Brandon Coccimiglio walked into the Independence Events Center for the first time in nearly two years and had to take a moment to get his bearings.
“I’ve never been to the visiting locker room,” said Coccimiglio, who starred for the Mavericks in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, “and I had to figure out where I should go.”
On his way to the locker room, he ran into old friends and linemates Sebastien Thinel and Andrew Courtney and exchanged pleasantries.
Soon, another former Maverick, forward Riley Emmerson, joined in on the conversation and before you could say “Mavericks reunion,” former Missouri defenseman Matt McCready was visiting with his former teammates.
It goes without saying that bragging rights will be on the line when the top-seeded Mavericks face off against the No. 8-seeded Sundogs at 7:05 tonight in the Independence Events Center in the opening round of the Central Hockey League playoffs.
“A lot of familiar faces on the Sundogs – and a lot of talent,” Mavericks coach Scott Hillman said after a post-practice closed-door meeting with his team. “When you think of a No. 8 seed, you don’t think of a team that has the talent the Sundogs bring to the playoffs.
“They have the CHL Goaltender of the Year in (Andrew) Engelage and so many great scorers. We’re going to have our hands full playing them, especially playing such a powerful offensive team in the opening round.”
The coach says the Mavericks’ advantage may be its experience.
“If there is any advantage to be had, I hope we have a slim advantage because most of the boys in the locker room have been with the team since day one,” Hillman said. “We went out and got the best group of veterans and young players we could find and Brent (Thiessen, team president) built a team for this part of the season.
“This is the first time we’ve had the same basic unit throughout the season and into the playoffs, and we have been working hard all season for this time of the season – the best time of the season – the playoffs.”
Team captain Sebastien Thinel, who was part of the Missouri teams that lost Game 7 of the semifinals on the road the past two seasons, thinks this year's team is built for a solid run through the postseason.
“No one wants to open the playoffs against a great offensive team like Arizona,” Thinel said. “But at this time of the year, every team is going to be strong. We have focus, keep it simple and do what we do best – have strong power-play and penalty-kill units and keep pushing the puck to the net.
“If we have an advantage, it will be that we have been a cohesive unit all season. Most of the boys have been here all season. We know what each other is thinking on the ice, we know how to react, how to respond to our teammates, and that is very important in the playoffs.”
Coccimiglio agreed, but the No. 2 scorer on the Sundogs (59 points, 41 with Arizona) said that his team is also performing as a strong unit.
“We have a lot of new players, but most of the guys have been here the last month or so and we're playing as a team,” said Coccimiglio, who was traded to Arizona from Tulsa early in the season. “It’s been an up and down season with some adversity, but we have a great coach, a great goaltender and we’re playing our best hockey of the season right now.”
Sundogs coach Kevin Colley, who was the coach of Mavericks goaltender Shane Owen last season with Utah of the East Coast Hockey League, agrees with his high-scoring forward. While the Sundogs were playing for their playoff lives, they finished the season 6-1-1 at home to claim that No. 8 spot.
“Coach Hillman has been working with most of his players since day one, and that gives them an advantage in that area,” Colley said. “But I like the way we’re playing right now. We have some new faces on the team, but the guys are playing as a team and not a group of individuals.
“Andrew (Engelage) has been a strong part of our team, and I am sure Coach Hillman would say that Shane has been the backbone of the Mavericks. We’re playing the top seed in the playoffs, the team with the best record in the CHL. The Mavericks are a different animal, and we’re going to have to try and find a way to be competitive with them.”
While Owen (2.58 goals against average) led the CHL with 35 wins and won the CHL Best of the Best Goaltender Award, Engelage (29-14, 2.46 GAA) claimed the CHL’s Most Outstanding Goaltender postseason honor.
“This is going to be an exciting series,” Engelage said. “I played with Shane the past couple of years, and we’re good friends. So there will be some bragging rights. But most of all, it's going to be about going on to the next round.
“And to do that, against a team like the Mavericks, we’re going to have to play our best hockey of the season. We have some new faces on the team, but everyone is on the same page and we went into the playoffs with a lot of momentum. I remember how crazy and loud the crowds were when we played here, and I know it’s going to be even crazier and louder Friday night. This is what you dream about, and we can’t wait for it all to start Friday night.”
COURTNEY HONORED: Mavericks forward Andrew Courtney has been named the Player of the Month for March. The Belleville, Ontario, native scored 12 goals and had 10 assists in 14 games in March. Courtney had points in all 14 contests during the month and finished with nine goals over his last seven games, ending the season on a five-game goal scoring streak. The forward had a pair of game-winning goals, five multiple-point games and three multiple-goal games in the month.
TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE: There are still tickets remaining for tonight’s and Sunday afternoon’s playoff games. Following the two weekend games in the IEC, the series moves to Arizona for three games. If necessary, the final two games would be played in the Events Center April 15 and 16.