The playoffs. That's not such a familiar term in these parts, what with the Tigers piddling around in the NIT and the Griz playing out the string for a lottery pick.
But here come the RiverKings. The Memphis-area hockey club has completed its 10th season with a franchise-best season record of 46-14-4. The 'Kings won the Northeast Division of the CHL, own home-ice for the playoffs, and are the favorites for this year's President Cup. Home-ice is a very good thing, since the 'Kings have a 26-2-3 record at the DeSoto Civic Center.
One reason the 'Kings have a championship-caliber record is forward Don Parsons, who won the CHL goal-scoring title with 54. Parsons was third overall in total points (goals and assists), with 95.
Parsons says that the 'Kings are preparing to win. "I don't think there is a lot we have to do," he says, "just fine-tune some systems, some breakouts, some checks, things like that. We have to get everyone on the same page before Thursday."
This Thursday, the 'Kings face their first-round opponent, the Fort Worth Brahmas. "If there was a team we struggled against, it's Fort Worth," Parsons says. "They play a pretty good defensive system. We're going to dissect the tapes and see what they did to shut us down. We had the best offense in the league, and they seemed to control it. We're going to find out what we need to and go out and practice it. Our main goal is to win the first game, then win [the second] game, and then steal one on the road."
Winning both games at home might seem a lock, given the team's record there, but one of the 'Kings' two home losses was to the Brahmas in a shoot-out. But Parsons says that the playoffs fit the 'Kings' style of play. "Playoff hockey is a lot more intense," he says. "Any loss can kill you and any mistake can lead to a loss. Besides the intensity, you're going to see teams try to play a lot smarter. You won't see a Fort Worth or a Shreveport come out and goon it up. They know they can lose the game on our power plays. It'll be a little faster, a little rougher, but a little cleaner too."
As for personal goals, Parsons says that he doesn't have any, except a championship. "Everyone in that locker room knows that we can beat anyone on any night in any building," he says. "So it's just a matter of going out there and doing it. I just want to do what I can do to win 10 games. If we win 10 games, we win the championship. That's everybody's goal, I can guarantee you that. There's nobody who's saying, 'I want to score 10 goals' or 'I want 50 penalty minutes.' Everyone's goal in these playoffs is to win at all costs."
One challenge for the 'Kings -- as with any minor-league squad -- is the loss of top talent to the big leagues. One such loss was CHL Rookie of the Year goalie Sebastien Centomo, who was called up to the RiverKings' NHL affiliate, the Toronto Maple Leafs. According to Parsons, however, the team has benefited from another top goalie in veteran Mark Richards. "Mark Richards came in as the number-one goalie," he says, "and then Centomo came in and we had two number-one goalies. Now, [goalie] Bobby Da Costa is stepping up and if Mark gets sick or if anything happens, we have full confidence that Bobby can do the job. It was tough to lose Centomo, but it's great to see [him] play in the NHL."
Parsons acknowledges that it's also great to be at home for the playoffs. "If you look at our home record, we've lost two games," he says. "Any team coming into our building, that's what they're thinking about before they step on the ice. So we already have an advantage."
RiverKings coach Doug Shedden agrees. "We've proved that we are almost unbeatable here this year," he says. "I would rather play at home than have an extra game in [an opponent's] building."
Shedden likes his team's chances, but he takes his first round opponent seriously. "We're very confident that we're a good team and we can get this done," he says. "But Fort Worth is a good team; they played very well against us. They're one of the toughest opponents we've seen this year. I don't think we're going to be over-confident. Fort Worth has an excellent goaltender, and, in a short series, that can get scary sometimes."
According to Shedden, the best away around the Fort Worth defense is to skate past it. "We just need to use our speed through the neutral zone," he says. "We're a fast team and we need to use that to our advantage. If we can get through the neutral zone, we can get some plays and we can catch them off the rush. The one thing we need to do is study Fort Worth a little more on tape. You watch a lot more tape in the playoffs."
Did you hear that? The playoffs. With any luck the playoffs could turn into "the championship." What a concept.
The RiverKings' first playoff game will be at the DeSoto Civic Center on March 21st, at 7 p.m.