By Matt Malinowski
READING, Pa. – “I would have to say the playoffs last season. We really meshed together at the right time and it is something that I’ll never forget.” Reading Royals defenseman Ian Turner (pictured), on his most memorable moment in hockey.
Many of those who were part of the Reading Royals’ magic carpet ride last season would echo Ian Turner’s words.
The Royals clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the season. They beat Johnstown in the league’s only wild card game. They knocked off Wheeling in the deciding game of the North Division semifinals. Then, after losing the opening two games of the conference finals, the Royals outscored Florida 10-1 on home ice to force a deciding Game 5.
It was an exhilarating trip, but it ended a bit short of its desired destination.
Starting tonight, the Royals begin what they hope will be another long trek through the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Defending division champion Reading, the top seed, opens the ECHL North Division semifinals against fourth-seeded Toledo at 7:05 p.m. at the Sovereign Center.
“Last year was just awesome, something I have never been a part of before,” said Royals leading scorer Graig Mischler , one of the team’s top weapons in the playoffs last spring. “It’s hard to explain. It just felt like everyone in town was a part of something big. It made it really hard when we lost.
“It made it a real easy decision to come back to Reading to try to do it again.”
This season, the Royals won the North Division regular season crown. They allowed the fewest goals in the league. Their .646 winning percentage was the fifth-best in the league.
They have great balance and plenty of players capable of providing clutch scoring punch. They have tremendous leadership with veteran players such as Cail MacLean, Larry Courville and Adam Borzecki, who will miss the opener due to a suspension.
They have a terrific goaltending tandem in rookie Barry Brust, who has a 1.96 goals-against average, and backup Cody Rudkowsky, who led last season’s playoff charge.
They have a power play that went from one of the worst in the league to seventh-best by season’s end.
They have won four straight against Toledo and won the season series 6-2-1.
But before you start marking your calendar for a parade on Penn Street, just remember that the North Division was tighter than spandex this season. Any team is capable of winning a series, and every mistake and missed opportunity will be critical.
The Royals know that home-ice advantage doesn’t mean squat if they don’t perform at their highest level every game, every shift.
“I’m not sure how everyone else feels, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t care where we finished in the regular season,” Mischler said. “Toledo wasn’t far behind us. They could have finished first, as well. We had trouble with Dayton and they finished in last place.”
“All we can control is how we play,” Royals coach Derek Clancey said. “If we don’t play well and get away from our system we aren’t getting past the first round, let alone win a championship.
“We know we are a talented team. We know we are a skilled team. Every guy who looks around our room knows what our potential is. But we also know that we have to work hard to be effective. If we don’t, we won’t be successful.”
If they don’t, this year’s playoff run won’t be as memorable.