DUBAI //Friendly barbs and brickbats exchanged, the competitive heat could still thaw the ice in this season's Emirates Hockey League final.
"I'd definitely encourage it," said Ron Murphy, captain of Dubai Mighty Camels, of the good-natured ribbing with Al Ain Vipers, their opponents for this week's final. "It gets guys motivated and builds the excitement.
"I want to make sure all our guys are up for it, without getting them too riled.
"There's been some good banter back and forth all year, but when we're on the ice it's no problem switching gears - we all want to win badly."
The Vipers want it badly, too.
The top team in the standings this year, they face the defending champions in the best-of-three series intent of securing a trophy last lifted in 2009/10, the league's inaugural campaign.
The vanquished four years ago?
"It's probably the match up everybody wanted," said Alex Hennawi, the Vipers captain and a remnant from that success. "Whoever wins will be first to win the championship twice so that makes it interesting for both sides.
"We're excited to face the Camels because they're the greatest challenge we can face. We want to beat the defending champions."
The scuffle begins Sunday night at Dubai Mall and while it could be argued these are the country's two best sides - Abu Dhabi Storms, champions in 2010/11 and second this season in the table, may disagree - they are certainly familiar foes.
"We weren't too far behind them this season," Murphy said. "So we know them quite well, they know us; there's no secrets out there. A series like this usually comes down to goaltending or one or two stepping up."
The Camels stepped up, finally, last year. Beaten in two previous finals, Murphy's men took the title in the third game against the Storms, a result of the disciplined teamwork that makes them, in Murphy's mind, the strongest group in the league.
"Last year was a huge weight off our backs," he said.
"We finished first every year, were favourites going into play-offs and just couldn't do it in the final. So last year was huge, knowing we can win the big games when it comes down to it.
"So this year the pressure's off. Even though we're confident it seems like the pressure is more on them. It's a good place to be, for sure."
Hennawi does not see it that way. Again, he cites a strong team ethic as the root of the Vipers' boom, a season of success borne from each player's perfect understanding of their role.
The results reflect that: the Vipers have a 3-1 record against the Camels, the most recent meeting a gutsy 6-5 victory.
The series - played this evening, Tuesday, and Wednesday if needed - decides the campaign's best, a fitting rerun of the competition's first ever finale.
"It's nice to be back in the final after a lean few seasons." Hennawi said.
"Especially as it's the same matchup as the year it all started.
"We know each other really well, we've been playing hockey against each other for years, so everyone's hyped up.
"As an elder statesman, I try to stay out of the banter, but there's a lot of friendly words being exchanged. In the end we'll settle it all on the ice."
What Emirates Hockey League final (best of 3)
Who Al Ain Vipers v Dubai Mighty Camels
Where Dubai Mall, Dubai
Game 1 – 8.15pm, today; Game 2 – 8.15pm, Tuesday; Game 3 (if needed) – 8.15pm, Wednesday
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