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AHL All-Star Classic to showcase pair of Roadrunners rookies

 

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The American Hockey League will hold its annual All-Star Classic Jan. 29-30 at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa., home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The fledgling Tucson Roadrunners will send a pair of rookie standouts — forward Christian Fischer and defenseman Kyle Wood — to represent the Pacific Division team at this year’s event.

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Overall, 12 players have been named to the Pacific Division team, including eight from the division’s five California teams.

Tucson head coach Mark Lamb said he is “very proud” of the Roadrunners’ AHL All-Star Classic selections, noting that the players have “a bright future” ahead of them.

Fischer, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound winger, had registered 16 goals and 32 points in 31 games with the Roadrunners upon receiving a call-up to the NHL Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 20. He led Tucson in goals scored and ranked second on the team in total points.

The 19-year-old native of Wayne, Ill., has been productive during his NHL debut with two goals scored in three games.

Fischer said he is excited to know that he has the confidence to play at the pro level

“I’m a power forward, so I think my strength and size are the biggest things I have,” the Tucson rookie explained. “With that, I think I have a pretty good skill set. Big guys get a knack for grinding it out. But I think I have a good set of hands and a good shot. I definitely pride myself on my size and speed, just creating a lot of space and opportunity for my linemates.”

Fischer earned honors as the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Jan. 15 after he led the Roadrunners to a perfect 3-0-0 record during that span with three goals and four assists.

He picked up a goal and an assist as Tucson rallied from two goals down to defeat Manitoba, 5-2, on Jan. 10. On Jan. 13, he registered one goal and two assists for his third three-point game of the season in the Roadrunners’ 5-3 win over Texas. In a Jan. 14 rematch with the Stars, Fischer notched a goal and an assist and was named the game’s first star in a 3-2 Tucson victory.

He finished with a plus-five rating during the three games.

At the time of his selection as player of the week, Fischer ranked second in the AHL among rookies in goals scored (15) and third in total points (31).

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A second-round selection by the Coyotes (32nd overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft, Fischer spent two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program before recording 90 points in 66 games with Windsor in the Ontario Hockey League in 2015-16. He made his pro debut with Springfield last April, notching two goals and one assist in six AHL games

Wood, a 20-year-old native of Waterloo, Ont., has had an impact on the Tucson roster from the start of his first pro season after receiving recognition as the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for October. He tallied points in all five games for the Roadrunners during the month (two goals, six assists) to help the Arizona team ascend to first place in the Pacific Division standings.

The six-foot-five, 223-pound blueliner put his name on the score sheet with a goal and assist in Tucson’s inaugural game, a 5-3 loss in San Diego on Oct. 14. He then assisted on the game-winning goal as the Roadrunners earned their first-ever victory with a 2-1 overtime win at Stockton on Oct. 21.

Wood picked up assists in ensuing games in Bakersfield on Oct. 22 and Oct. 28 against visiting Stockton before tallying a goal and an assist in Tucson’s come-from-behind 4-3 win over Stockton on Oct. 30.

Prior to joining the Roadrunners, he totaled 27 goals and 93 points in 165 games with Brampton and North Bay in the OHL. A third-round choice by Colorado in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Wood was acquired by the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 29, 2016, and made his pro debut with Springfield last spring, appearing in two games.

Wood has continued to prosper during his first season with the Roadrunners with eight goals and 30 points in 36 games to rank fourth on the team in goals scored and third on the team in total points.

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He called his All-Star selection a “huge accomplishment.”

Lamb said Wood scores high marks for his offensive game and dimension on the power play, which is something sought by teams at all levels.

“I’ve been working on my skating and stuff like that,” Wood said in regard to his ongoing development at the AHL level. “I think things have been going well so far.”

Three’s company

The Roadrunners actually had three rookie players named to the Pacific Division All-Star roster this year. Forward Brendan Perlini was originally tabbed to represent Tucson at the AHL All-Star Classic but was unable to participate due to an extended call-up to the Coyotes.

Perlini, a six-foot-two, 212-pound left wing, received recognition from the league as its CCM/ Rookie of the Month for November after recording nine goals and 12 points in nine games during the month. Included were a seven-game point-scoring streak and six-game goal-scoring streak that matched the longest by an AHL rookie since 2012.

He logged his first two-goal game as a pro on Nov. 5 in helping the Roadrunners top Ontario, 5-4, in overtime. He then supplied the game-winning goal in a 3-0 victory at Bakersfield on Nov. 11.

Perlini picked up two goals and an assist in a 5-2 victory over Manitoba on Nov. 18 and notched a second straight two-goal outing against Stockton on Nov. 26. He closed out the month with a goal and an assist in a 5-4 win over Stockton on Nov. 27.

At the time of his selection as the league’s rookie of the month, the first round pick (12th overall) by Arizona in the 2014 NHL Draft led all AHL skaters with 11 goals and was tied for third among league rookies with 16 points in 14 games.

The 20-year-old native of Guildford, England, has logged a lot of playing time both with the Coyotes and Roadrunners this season. Perlini has notched seven goals and nine points in 23 NHL games in 2016-17; he’s tallied 14 goals (seven on the power play) and 19 points in 17 AHL games during his rookie campaign.

He notched his first pro hat trick Jan. 10 with Tucson during a mandated bye week for the Coyotes.

The hat trick impressed Lamb, who noted Perlini’s adaptation to the speed at the NHL level served him exceedingly well in his one-game return to Tucson.

“I’d just like to kidnap him,” Lamb told reporters. “You watch him out there, you look at the confidence, he’s just oozing with it right now. I think he really enjoys playing the game; he looks like he’s having fun out there. He comes down and he scores three goals; and he doesn’t just do that, the impact he has when he has the puck, killing penalties, and he really fills out a first line.”

Honor roll

The division leading Ontario Reign led the Pacific Division with three All-Star selections: forward Jonny Brodzinski, defenseman (and captain) Vincent LoVerde and goaltender Jack Campbell.

Two players will represent the San Jose Barracuda: forward Daniel O’Regan and goaltender Troy Grosenick.

Other Pacific Division selections include one player each from the San Diego Gulls (defenseman Brandon Montour), Stockton Heat (forward Mark Jankowski), Bakersfield Condors (forward Taylor Beck), Texas Stars (forward Matej Stransky) and San Antonio Rampage (forward A.J. Greer).

Ontario head coach Mike Stothers will serve as the Pacific Division All-Stars coach.

The 2017 All-Star rosters feature 39 first-time participants, 12 AHL rookies and 12 former first- and second-round NHL draft picks. Of note, 28 of this year’s all-star selections have received call-ups to their parent NHL teams already this season.

Top shelf

The 2017 AHL All-Star Classic includes two separate events: an All-Star skills competition on Jan. 29, starting at 7:30 p.m. ET (5:30 p.m. MST), and an All-Star challenge on Jan. 30, also starting at 7:30 p.m. ET (5:30 p.m. MST).

The skills competition will pit players from the Eastern Conference (Atlantic and North divisions) against those from the Western Conference (Pacific and Central divisions) in seven skills events.

Events include puck control relay, fastest skater competition, rapid fire, hardest shot, accuracy shooting, pass and score drill and the breakaway relay.

In the All-Star challenge event, the four teams will participate in a round-robin tournament featuring six games of 10 minutes each played entirely at three-on-three. The two teams with the best records at the end of the round-robin competition will face off for the championship in a six-minute game also played at three-on-three.

The Central Division All-Stars won last year’s all-star challenge championship while the Western Conference defeated the Eastern Conference 19-14 in the skills competition.

The AHL All-Star Classic festivities also include the AHL Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony.

The ceremony will feature the induction of Billy Dea, Bryan Helmer, Rob Murray and Doug Yingst as the AHL Hall of Fame Class of 2017 and will also celebrate honorary All-Star Classic captains Daniel Briere and Terry Murray.

Dea, 83, appeared in 397 NHL games during his long pro career (1953-1972).

Helmer appeared in 28 games for the NHL Phoenix Coyotes during two stints in 1998-99 and 2003-04.

Rob Murray is now in his sixth season coaching the Alaska Aces in the ECHL. He guided the Aces, an original member of the West Coast Hockey League, to the 2013-14 Kelly Cup championship.

Captain courageous

Teammates and fans were abuzz when Roadrunners team captain Craig Cunningham made a surprise visit to Tucson Arena on Jan. 14. The unexpected visit came nearly two months after Cunningham suffered a heart attack on the ice during pregame warm-ups Nov. 19.

There began a month-long odyssey to save Cunningham’s life. He eventually recovered but suffered the loss of part of his left leg due to a lingering post-operative infection.

It was Cunningham’s first time back in the building since the initial incident.

Cunningham sat in a stall in the locker room and greeted teammates prior to the game against the Texas Stars, a 3-2 Roadrunners victory. Tucson GM Doug Soetaert said the impromptu visit was by Cunningham’s personal request. Soetaert said Cunningham is welcome in the arena anytime he so chooses in the future as his rehabilitation continues.

Though Cunningham’s pro playing career is over, he still retains a close affinity for the game. A job on the management or administrative side of the game could be in his future, if he elects to pursue that goal.

Once the 4,825 fans realized that Cunningham was in the building, they gave him a standing ovation.

Players admitted Cunningham’s presence gave them a spark to start the game. The Roadrunners scored three first-period goals to help launch them to the key victory, the team’s third in its franchise-record five-game winning streak.

None of the Tucson players knew of Cunningham’s visit beforehand.

“We didn’t know that he was coming in, so it was pretty cool to see him in here,” Fischer explained. “I think anytime we see him in here, our spirits are pretty high just to see him smile,” “It was nice to be able to give him a little tribute, too. He’s stuck with it all of the way, it’s amazing to see this comeback that he’s came from. When he’s here, that definitely lifts our spirits and gives us a little more energy. We played for him tonight.”

Left wing Hunter Fejes felt Cunningham’s visit was, in his words, “good for our team.”

“Everyone was really excited to see him in the locker room, and that’s why we had the great first period that we did,” Fejes explained. “He’s our captain, and he’ll be our captain for the rest of the year.”

I think it brings up a lot of emotions for everyone,” right wing Stefan Fournier expressed. “Everyone here has obviously seen Craig throughout the process, but for a lot of us it was just great to see him around the rink, see him smile, hear him laugh a bit before the game, it was awesome.”

Lamb echoed his players’ comments in regard to Cunningham’s inspirational pregame visit.

“It was great coming into the room like we always do at the eight-minute mark before the game, and he was there sitting in his stall, it was great to see him there, it was just too bad we couldn’t start him,” the Tucson coach explained. “It made all of the guys feel good; it made him feel good.

“We all feel comfortable with him around; he can come around whenever he wants. I think we played a really good first period for him, and then we kind of lost some gas. The game didn’t necessarily go our way, but it ended up our way. The last two periods they took it to us; we were lucky to get the points.

“I think the guys were excited to see him; I know I was, I know the coaching staff was. He told me that he’s still fast, which is great. But, yeah, I think him being there gave us some life in a couple of ways, gave us some life to get going, and then it made us hold on.”

What’s trending

Ontario once again finds itself on top of the Pacific Division heading into the final weekend before the All-Star break. The Reign boasts a 22-9-6-0 record (.676 points percentage) to lead second place San Jose (20-11-1-3, .629 points-percentage) and third place Tucson (20-11-5-0, .625 points-percentage).

The division standings continue to remain fluid, however, with the top three teams separated by .051 percentage points. The three teams occupying second through fourth place in the divisions standings were separated by .029 percentage points, with the second and third place teams separated by just .004 percentage points.

Going down the standings, 0.062 percentage points separated teams in fourth through sixth place. The teams sitting in seventh and eight place were separated by just .002 percentage points in a remarkable display of parity all the way down the line.

Streaks have defined the season – and the division standings, for that matter – throughout the 2016-17 season.

For example, Stockton catapulted into first place in early December on the strength of a 16-6-1-1 start to the 2016-17 season. The Heat has since cooled off (3-6-1-0 in its last 10 games) to slide down the division standings into fifth place.

Meanwhile, San Jose rode its own hot streak that landed it in second place, just percentage points behind Ontario, in early January. The Barracuda had to chance to move ahead of the Reign into sole possession of first place but dropped a 3-2 home ice decision to Ontario on Jan. 13.

Tucson rode a franchise-record five-game winning streak into first place, leaping over both the Reign and the Barracuda into the top spot following its solid 4-1 victory against visiting Ontario on Jan. 18. However, Tucson dropped to third place after earning just one point (0-1-1) in a two-game East Coast swing to Charlotte, N.C., against the Checkers Jan. 21-22.

The first-year Roadrunners have enjoyed multiple stays atop the division standings this season.

A big reason for Tucson’s success has been in the club’s ability to win the close games. The Roadrunners are 14-1-5 in one-goal games this season. Tucson has also prospered in the 11 games that have gone past regulation play by picking up valuable bonus points.

The Roadrunners hope another trip to the top is in their fortune prior to the end of the regular season.

“We’re playing well, and we just need to keep taking it one game at a time,” Tucson rookie goaltender Adin Hill commented “The standings are pretty close right now, so every win’s huge.

By the numbers

The Roadrunners began their record five-game winning streak with a 5-2 victory at Tucson Arena against the Manitoba Moose on Jan. 10 and continued the surge with home ice wins over Texas (5-2 on Jan. 13 and 5-3 on Jan. 14) and Ontario (3-2 on Jan. 16 and 4-1 on Jan. 18).

Tucson dropped a 3-1 decision in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 21 to end the winning streak. The Roadrunners did pick up one valuable standing point in a 2-1 overtime loss to the host Checkers on Jan. 22.

According to Google, Tucson is located 1,916 miles from Charlotte. However, that doesn’t always account for extra mileage racked up during flights that can sometimes take widely divergent connecting flights.

The Roadrunners will play Charlotte in two upcoming games at Gila River Arena on Feb. 3-4. Both contests, which are slated for 7:05 p.m. MST start times, will offer Coyotes fans a look at the team’s future roster and offer Roadrunners fans a chance to experience a large arena experience and see where their favorite players will be playing in future seasons.

Veteran center Chris Mueller leads Tucson in team scoring with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists) in 36 games.

Scottsdale’s Zac Larraza has returned to the active lineup for San Diego following an injury that had kept him out of the lineup for several weeks. He marked his return by scoring a goal in the Gulls’ 3-2 shootout loss at Ontario on Jan. 22.

In 12 games with San Diego this season, he has collected four goals and one assist. Last season in 12 games with the Gulls, he tallied one goal and three assists for four points.

San Diego leads the eight Pacific Division teams in attendance with an average of 8,235 fans, followed by Ontario (7,923), San Antonio (5,627), Bakersfield (5,144), Texas (4,958), San Jose (4,282), Stockton (4,271) and Tucson (3,769).

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents