INDEPENDENCE, MO – The push for the Kelly Cup Playoffs has begun in the ECHL, and this weekend’s set between the Kansas City Mavericks and Cincinnati Cyclones features two games that are vital for each side.
The Mavericks are playing their best hockey of the season, winners of 11 of their last 15 games, including three impressive wins over two of the top teams in the league in Toledo and Colorado. On the flip side, January was not a great month of hockey for the Cyclones. Defensive lapses and sub-par goaltending led to a 3-7-1 record to start 2018. Over the last five games, Cincinnati has allowed an eye-popping 25 goals against.
Much is the case throughout the season, numbers can be thrown out the window. The Mavericks had an opportunity at home last weekend against a Rapid City team that had a disastrous December and only earned two of four possible points and needed a stand-out effort from goalie Tyler Parsons to scrape out a win.
Coming into Friday night’s tilt, the Mavericks sit in third place in the Central Division, with Kalamazoo nipping at their heels, just a point behind in the standings. Cincinnati is currently on the outside looking in, but are only four points behind Kalamazoo and five behind Kansas City with games in hand on both teams. So even with 27 games left on the schedule for the Mavericks (30 for Cincinnati), a chance to distance yourself from the teams below you in the standings is monumental. That is the opportunity the Mavericks have this weekend. A sweep would create a nine-point cushion over Cincinnati that even their games in hand couldn’t overcome. For the Cyclones, they can cut their deficit to just a single point if they were able to win both games in regulation over Kansas City, likely leap-frogging (or at worst tying) Kalamazoo in the process. There is still a lot of hockey to be played this season, but this is a golden opportunity for both teams.
So let’s take a look at some key players for both sides for this pivotal matchup. To get the Cyclones perspective, I’ve joined forces with Kristen Wooten (@SinBinCyclones), our contributor in Cincinnati (and also new ECHL editor).
Players to watch for Cincinnati:
1. Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, F: Four goals, six assists in five games (was on a five-game point streak until Wednesday’s game at Quad City)
2. Justin Danforth, F: Despite being absent for three games during a call-up to Rochester, he still leads all rookies in scoring (23g,22a-45pts). Danforth held the team lead in points until Jesse Schultz took the crown during his recall.
3. Justin Vaive, F; Can’t mention Muzito-Bagenda without Vaive. The two together are a power-house. They are certainly this year’s iconic duo despite the rough patch the Cyclones have been in as of late. Vaive is a gut-punch waiting to happen whenever he’s on the ice, whether it’s literally or figuratively, as he busts out of the box or bench and tears down the ice for what is sure to be a shift given 110% from the second his skates land.
Biggest key to a successful Cincinnati weekend:
The Cyclones goaltending needs to step it up. There’s no way around that anymore. Despite the Cyclones having the second-worst shots-for average in the league (1196 shots for overall, 28.48 shots/per game) they have one of the top shots-against average, holding opponents to 31.17 shots per game. In order for Cincinnati to get out of this rut, the goaltending needs to step it up, and the team has to stop being so conservative with shots. As cliché as it may be, The Great One was right when he said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The Cyclones could do well with taking some notes from arguably the most iconic quote in hockey history.
Players to watch for Kansas City:
1. Mark Cooper, F: After a slow start, Cooper is starting to look like the high-scoring forward that the Mavericks hoped he would be. Cooper has five points in the last four games and tallied five goals in the month of January.
2. Bryce Aneloski, D: Special teams could play a huge factor in this weekend’s games. The success of the Mavericks power play has been understated this season. The Mavericks have the third best power play in the Western Conference (19.5%) and Aneloski quarterbacking that unit is a great luxury to have. Kansas City is 17-5-0-1 when scoring with the man advantage, and Aneloski has made a name for himself by blasting away from the blue line.
3. Mason McDonald, G: After a brief stint in Stockton, McDonald returns to the Mavericks looking to pick up where he left off. The six goals he gave up in Toledo on January 13th appear to be an anomaly compared to his other recent performances. Taking away that putrid game, he has a goals against average of 2.33 and a .922 save percentage in his other six previous starts.
Biggest key to a successful Kansas City weekend:
Cincinnati has struggled defensively of late, and if the Mavericks can jump out to early leads, the wheels may fall off for the Cyclones. After a series of games allowing so many goals like the Cyclones have, it can start to become more of a mental problem than physical for a team, and the Mavericks need to seize that opportunity. The Mavericks offense has struggled at times throughout this season, and any sign of that this weekend can bring that confidence level back for Cincinnati. First period goals are a must if Kansas City wants to put space between themselves and the Cyclones in the standings this weekend.
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