BY AARON PATTERSON
Friday’s Federal Hockey League playoff game between the Danville Dashers and Dayton Demonz marked the 24th time the two teams had met this season. Nearly half the games they played this season were battles between the two most western teams in the league. And each time they met, the intensity grew.
Danville forward Kevin McCready likened each encounter to a war zone. The Dashers won a few battles during this season’s journey, but the Demonz ultimately won the war, ending the Dashers’ season on Friday with a 6-1 decision, and a three-game playoff series sweep.
McCready scored Danville’s lone goal of the night, and as the Poughkeepsie, NY native skated off the ice after being announced in front of the home crowd as the third star of the game, his emotions began to flow.
“For myself, it’s been a long year, coming from a team (Cape Cod) that folded and coming here,” McCready said. “I went to a team that, from the day I got here, everybody wanted to win. Everybody wanted to achieve more. Everybody wanted to achieve what nobody expected.
“Everybody’s goal is to win a championship. We fell short, but in our heads, we felt that could have been done. It was an emotional game for me because that’s the last game I’m ever going to play.”
It was McCready’s final professional hockey game before beginning a new journey as a member of the New York Police Department. After accomplishing his first goal of becoming a professional hockey player, he will now follow in his family’s footsteps joining his father, sister, grandfather, and cousin as a member of the police force.
It’s a family tradition, much like what the Dashers’ organization began building this season. Danville brought its core group of players back from its inaugural season of five wins, and finished with a much-improved 18 victories.
“This year, we had things right from the get-go, we didn’t have a change in coaching, we didn’t have a change in rosters,” Dashers coach Rob Schweyer said. “Last year, I think we had the highest team turnover (in the league). It was like a revolving door. This year, when you have a core unit, even if they’re not the most skilled individuals, you can build on systems.
“We built a family unit. I think the community saw that we were here to support the community as well as the community supporting us.”
Despite the loss, the Dashers made sure to give its final home crowd of nearly 1,000 a show worthy of cheering.
The Dashers realized, after going down 2-0 in the first period, that they were going to have to play a more physical game against the Demonz. That’s when forward Chris Affinati dropped gloves 11 minutes into the second period to battle with Dayton’s Brad Townsend. It was Danville’s first penalty of the game, and sparked life into both the teams and the crowd.
From there, the Palmer Arena was rocking, cheering on the physical play that resulted in a combined 13 additional penalties, including early exits by Danville’s Dustin Skinner and Dayton’s Ahmed Mahfouz.
“When a team is beating you on the scoreboard, you’ve got to kind of send a message and step up your physical play,” Affinati said. “No one really likes to get hit, and you can tell these guys are a really skilled team. They move the puck really well. They’ve got a lot of veterans and a lot of guys with a lot of skill. The only way to take them out of the play is to step up the physical game. I got the fight going because usually that changes the momentum of the game.”
The momentum changed briefly, but the Demonz doubled the score going up 6-0 until McCready found the back of the net with six minutes left in the game.
Dayton will go on to face the winner of Danbury and 1,000 Islands for the Commissioner’s Cup. Meanwhile, the Dashers will begin building on the momentum from an otherwise successful turnaround from a season ago.
Their goal during the offseason will be to become more invested in the community, build a roster worthy of contending, and continuing to build on the tradition it has envisioned for hockey in Danville.
“It was a huge turnaround from last year,” Affinati said. ”The big thing is the support from the community. We went from, one of my first games here we had like 50 fans to like 1,100 or 1,200 fans. That makes a huge difference. They welcomed us into the community. Being involved and seeing everybody, people coming up to you in the streets, it’s more of a family atmosphere and more of a welcoming place than it was last year.
“We’re building a tradition here, and you’ve got to start from scratch. You can only go up from where we were last year. I’m pretty excited and proud to be a part of a growing tradition here in Danville.”