Bryce Aneloski has been a difference maker.
The defenseman has become one of the Missouri Mavericks’ top threats offensively – and that’s a good thing with leading scorer Jesse Root out for the rest of the season.
Aneloski had two goals, two assists and a plus-4 rating in the four-game sweep of the Quad City Mallards, trailing only forwards Rocco Carzo (6), David de Kastrozza (5) and Carter Verhaeghe (5) in points.
“Bryce is a guy who goes out every night and gets the job done,” Mavericks coach Richard Matvichuk said of the 6-foot-2, 205-pound native of Pekin, Ill. “He’s a great defenseman and he’s found the back of the net a couple of times in the playoffs. It’s like I tell the guys, there’s no such thing as a bad shot in the playoffs, and he’s taken some good ones.”
Matvichuk was a shutdown defenseman in the NHL, and won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, so he knows what he’s talking about when he dissects the play of his defensemen.
“We’re lucky to have Bryce,” Matvichuk added. “He’s not going to be here very long. He has the talent that will take him to next level, so we’re all going to enjoy everything he does for this team while he’s here.”
The Mavericks took a 2-0 lead to Quad City last week and trailed 1-0 in the first game at the iWireless Center in Moline, Ill., when an Aneloski goal knotted the score at 1-all. The Mavericks came back to win 4-2.
In the deciding fourth game, defensemen Aneloski and Chris Owens scored the first two goals in a 4-1 victory that was a microcosm of the Mavericks’ 109-point season in which they claimed home ice throughout the playoffs by claiming the best record in the ECHL.
Now, they are back at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, awaiting their next opponent in the ECHL Western Conference semifinals, which begin at 7:05 p.m. Friday.
“It’s been an absolute blast to play for this team and play for Coach Matvichuk,” Aneloski said. “Being a former defensive player in the NHL, he knows how to play defense and he knows how to coach. He helps my game, helps me feel confident and the puck has been going into the net lately and that’s a lot of fun.”
While Aneloski dreams of taking his game to the next level, he is savoring every minute with the Mavericks in the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
“Home ice means a lot to our team,” he said. “The crowd we have here in Independence allows us to play our game. They are behind us, they get us amped up, we feed off their energy. The two home games this weekend are huge, and even though we don’t know who we play, we’re just ready for whoever our opponent is (Allen and Idaho played Tuesday night in Game 6 of their series, which the Steelheads lead 3-2).”
While the winner of the Allen-Idaho series could possibly come in with momentum, Aneloski is happy with time the Mavericks have to prepare for their next round.
“We have an advantage getting some time off,” Aneloski said. “We were able to get away from the rink a couple of days. We will be rested and once we get a few shifts under our belt Friday, we’ll be amped up. Our batteries are recharged and we’re ready – especially with our fans behind us.”
The Mavericks faced a dangerous opponent in the opening round – a Mallards team that had added many new players who weren’t around when Missouri blanked them 5-0 in the regular season.
“It was a dangerous situation for us,” Aneloski said. “In Game 1 they threw everything at us but the kitchen sink. We weathered the storm and that was a cool experience. As we got that Game 1 win, our focus was on getting the next one. We wanted to make each upcoming game our best game and we did.
“In Game 4 they were fighting for their lives and we got the first goal and just kept going. We won a lot of games in the regular season, but there is nothing like playoff hockey, it’s a different type of hockey.”
While the Mavericks claimed the best record in the ECHL, Aneloski said they have achieved something even more impressive – team unity.
“I’ve never been on a team quite like this, to be honest with you,” Aneloski said. “We have so many pieces of the puzzle. Everyone buys into the system, buys into the team, and because of that we have individual success and more.”
Aneloski had a remarkable plus-24 rating during the regular season, and he credits his teammates for that lofty number.
“We have a lot of skilled hockey players, a lot of hard working hockey players, but the chemistry is what makes us special,” he said. “Any guy on the team has the other guy’s back. That’s why this team is so special. A guy like (associate captain and veteran forward) Andrew Courtney brings everything he has every game, he knows what’s going on. He’s not vocal, he leads by example. He does all the right things on and off the ice.
“Then there’s a player like Trevor Ludwig, a great leader, our captain. We go as he goes. He rallies the troops. I have so much respect for his game and for him as a person. You know what you’re going to get. He has three rings (won with Allen the past three seasons) and I’m hoping we can help him get another one this year.
“And it’s such an honor to play in front of two goalies like Josh (Robinson) and Parker (Milner, who is presently at the team’s AHL affiliate Bridgeport). As a defenseman, they are everything. I want to keep my guy to the outside and not give him a good shot on goal, but I know if I make a mistake they are there to take care of me. They are a huge part of our success.
“We have a special group of guys and I think we’re going to accomplish something special in the playoffs.”