INDEPENDENCE, MO – Scott Hillman’s return to the arena where he played a major role in so many memories for the Missouri Mavericks organization didn’t exactly go according to plan, at least not according to the plans that he had. The Mavericks sent their former bench boss limping back to Indianapolis, licking his wounds after getting swept off the ice that his teams once dominated.
Last weekend was a big test for the Mavericks. Outside of the story line of Hillman’s return, the Mavericks had yet to be tested by an unfamiliar foe during their current winning streak (which is now at 12 games). They had faced some good teams, sure that’s true. Quad City is always a formidable opponent, and currently sit atop the Midwest division, but Terry Ruskowski has a similar squad with similar tendencies and strengths every season it seems. Allen is Allen. They have always been one of the best teams in the league, and it seems they will be as long as Steve Martinson is at the helm. Wichita seems to be snake-bitten against the Mavericks this season, having lost seven in a row so far. The opponents during this streak, leading up to this past weekend, were nothing the Mavs hadn’t seen before.
However, Hillman and his Fuel team would be a true test of a new foe, outside the division (yes, I know, Quad City isn’t in our division anymore, but it still seems like it), and one of the better teams in the league to this point. Friday night would be a heavyweight battle of two teams trying to stake their respective claim as a team that should be reckoned with across the ECHL. It was a back and forth game with constant action, heavy hitting, top notch goaltending, and tremendous skill being put on display all over the ice. This was a contest that represented the ECHL brand to its fullest.
Indy was able to accomplish something that many other teams could not. They were able to slow down the high-flying attack of the Mavericks for the first half of the game. Rather than trying to skate with the Mavericks, which has been proven to be quite the monumental task, the Fuel players instead clogged up the passing lanes, preventing the Mavs from stretching the ice as well as thwarting their attempts to get Fuel goalie (and former Mavs star) Shane Owen moving side-to-side across his crease. Mavs coach Richard Matvichuk realized that what they were doing wasn’t going to work on this night, made a few adjustments offensively, and the Mavericks would rack up four goals on their way to their 10th consecutive victory.
After the game, I was able to sit with Coach Hillman for a while and discuss his return to Independence. Here is the audio from our conversation:
Saturday night was a much different game than Friday’s affair. The game ended with the result we were all hoping for, a Mavericks victory, but it didn’t come without some concerning moments along the way. Saturday’s game was a sloppy, sloppy performance from the Mavericks, and probably their worst showing since the season opener loss up in Anchorage. Turnovers all over the ice, shoddy transitional play, passes in skates, missed scoring opportunities, and failed defensive assignments were aplenty. Here’s the kicker: if there was ever a game that should convince all of us just how good this Mavericks team is, it should be this game. They played pretty poorly, and without some key contributors, yet still were able to beat a very good Indy team 4-2. Usually, teams don’t get two points out of “off nights” and the Mavericks did just that (and also their 11th straight win). It helps to have the dynamic duo of Parker Milner and Josh Robinson between the pipes, as they were able hold the Fuel to four goals over two games. Great goaltending will keep you in every game, even on those nights when you don’t have “it.”
The weary Mavericks would head to Tulsa for a Sunday matinee with the Oilers. Playing their fourth game in five days, with a holiday sprinkled in, the Mavericks took a little while to get the legs going, but a late goal from Jesse Root, his 13th of the season to lead the ECHL, would give the Mavs a 2-1 win and propel their winning streak to 12 in a row, extending the franchise record by another game. Not to take anything away from Sunday’s win, as it was as important as any other this season, but this game was just a bonus. After an emotional weekend, bumps, bruises, and heavy legs, a road game on a Sunday to end a four in five set is a game that you don’t put much stock into if the Mavs lose. To grind out a win under those circumstances is beyond admirable, and now they will have a chance to get some much needed rest. After this crazy stretch of games piled on top of each other, the Mavericks will only play three games over the next 12 days, starting with Evansville on Wednesday.
I couldn’t think of a good way to wrap up, so I’ll throw this out there: the Mavericks haven’t lost since Halloween. It’s now December. Boom.