The Orange Army, as the Missouri Mavericks’ fan base is known, was in force Saturday at the Independence Events Center hours before the puck dropped for the Mavs’ first home game of the season.
Hundreds arrived early for the “Rally at the Rink” celebration outside the arena, then tailgated in the parking lot or waited in line for the doors to open more than 2 1/2 hours before the game’s scheduled start.
By the time the Mavericks took the ice, a capacity crowd of 5,850 filled the arena — most donning orange replica game sweaters, team-logoed hoodies or other Mavs apparel — as the franchise, in its sixth year, embarks on a season of change in its new league.
It was the last home-opener in the 28-team ECHL, and for the Mavericks — coming off five road games — and their fans, it ended up being worth the wait as Missouri claimed a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Rapid City.
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“It was an incredible crowd tonight,” said right winger Garett Bembridge, who scored two goals, including the eventual game winner in his first game as a Maverick at the Independence Events Center. “Right from warmups guys were talking about how amazing it was.”
Both of Bembridge’s goals came during a three-goal, 9 1/2-minute, second-period flurry that turned around a 1-0 lead Rapid City’s Daniel Barczuk secured by pushing a deflected rebound past goaltender Mike Clemente 2:18 into the game.
From there, the Mavericks held on in front of a vocal, engaged crowd for what first-year Mavs coach Richard Matvichuk described his team’s most complete performance.
“It was a really good win,” Matvichuk said. “Obviously everybody has a little of the jitterbugs (playing at home) and you kind of start cheating at the beginning of the game a little bit there. As a full 60 minutes, we’re impressed.”
Kellan Tochkin evened the score 2 minutes into the second period, while Clemente and the defense held Rapid City to a season-low two goals allowed.
“It’s a good win to build off of,” said Clemente, who had 21 saves. “We didn’t give them any chance, we didn’t give them life. From the second period on we built into a very complete, scary team to watch. Things are started to come together.”
While the home-opening win made their ECHL transition official, the Mavericks recognized the last vestiges of the now-defunct Central Hockey League that was their home since the team’s inception before the game.
Banners celebrating the Bud Poile Governors’ Cup for the league’s best regular season record in 2013-14 and a fourth-consecutive and final CHL “Franchise of the Year” honor were unfurled from the rafters.
The loudest roar, perhaps unsurprisingly, was reserved for the banner recognizing the Mavericks for the “Best Fans” honor voted on by the CHL’s membership on a night that could announce their candidacy for 2014-15 in their new league.
“It’s a great crowd and great place to play,” Clemente said. “It’s really energizing.”