AHL’s Roadrunners continue to hold onto first place in Pacific Division
The Tucson Roadrunners have proven they can win with rookie forward Dylan Strome in the lineup.
They’ve also shown they can win without him in the lineup.
Strome, the parent Arizona Coyotes’ top pick in the 2015 NHL Draft (third overall), received his fourth recall this season on March 20 after collecting 47 points (22 goals, 28 assists) in 50 games with Tucson, the Coyotes’ top developmental affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Strome had a plus-8 rating in those 50 games with the Roadrunners to go with nine power-play goals, second on the team to fellow rookie Nick Merkley (11).
Strome’s presence in the Tucson lineup has certainly proven a factor in the AHL team’s rise to the top of the Pacific Division standings. With seven regular-season games left in the 2017-18 season, the magic number to clinch a berth in the upcoming Calder Cup championship playoffs had shrunk to seven points.
The Roadrunners carry a 36-19-5-1 record (.639 winning percentage) into a two-game series March 30-31 in Des Moines, Iowa, to conclude a four-game road trip. Tucson is pushing the Central Division leading Manitoba Moose (39-20-4-4, .642 winning percentage) for the best record in the AHL’s Western Conference.
The 36 wins and 78 standings points are already Tucson club records. The Roadrunners finished their inaugural season in 2016-17 with a non-playoff qualifying 29-31-8 record and 66 standings points.
Tucson heads into its final seven regular season games 6-2-2-0 in its last 10 games. The Roadrunners have home contests scheduled April 6-7 against the Grand Rapids Griffins and April 13-14 against the San Diego Gulls. Tucson visits San Diego in its final regular season road game on April 11.
The AHL regular season ends April 15.
The Roadrunners picked up five out of a possible eight points (2-1-1-0) in their first four games following Strome’s latest recall. Tucson hosted San Jose March 20-21. The Roadrunners shut out the Barracuda, 4-0, on March 20 and lost, 4-3, in overtime the following night to take three out of four points from San Jose.
Goaltender Adin Hill stopped all 20 shots he faced to earn the shutout win in the March 20 home ice victory while Lane Pederson collected three points (one goal, two assists). Conor Garland contributed one goal and one assist while Mario Kempe and Michael Bunting each scored one goal.
Nine Roadrunners earned points in the shutout win. Newcomer Carter Camper picked up an assist as did Mike Sislo, Dakota Mermis, Lawson Crouse and Hill. Sislo’s assist was his 21st of the season.
Garland and Bunting each scored power play goals.
Tucson rallied from a pair of two-goal deficits the next night to force overtime and pick up a valuable standing point before Jacob Middleton scored for San Jose in the sudden-victory overtime period.
Joel Hanley and Camper each scored third-period goals to extend the game beyond regulation. The goal was Hanley’s first of the season
Sislo scored his 23rd goal of the season to face off the second period after the Barracuda had taken a 2-0 first-period lead on goals 31 seconds apart.
Silso took over the team lead in the goalscoring department from Strome with the tally. Camper, Mermis, Bunting, Kempe, Pederson and Hill also picked up assists in the well-rounded Tucson offensive effort.
San Jose pulled out the OT win despite being out-shot 34-18 in the game.
“It’s nice that we clawed our way back; I just didn’t think we were desperate enough,” Tucson head coach Mike Van Ryn told TucsonRoadrunners.com after the game. “We knew they were going to come at us hard, we know that they have pride, and they’re a hard-working team. We weren’t ready. Our starts have been a bit of a struggle for our team, and it’s something we have to correct.”
Camper scored the game-tying goal with 1:17 to play on a 185-foot end-to-end rush while stick-handling through several Cuda defensemen before finally scoring on a back-hand shot.
Hanley was nonetheless proud of his team’s comeback.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the start we wanted, we were down two goals, but to bounce back in the third is a good character comeback for the team,” the defenseman noted in a post-game media interview. “To get a point like that, especially at this time of year, it’s big. We would’ve liked the two points, but we’ll take the point and learn from it.”
The Roadrunners extended their point streak to six games (5-0-1) with a 2-1 win in Bakersfield on March 24 to face off their current four-game road swing.
Garland broke a 1-1 tie with his seventh goal of the season at the 17:59 mark of the third period to stand up as the game-winning goal. Kyle Capobianco and Sislo provided the assists. The assist was the 24th of the season for Capobianco and the 22nd for Sislo, who remains red hot in the points department for the Roadrunners.
Garland assisted on Bunting’s go-ahead goal at 4:55 of the second period. Kyle Wood also picked up the assist on the 1-0 jump goal, his 13th helper of the season.
Ty Loney picked up his first goal of the season to tie the game for the host Condors at 12:09 of the third period.
Crouse and Ryan MacInnis each scored goals for Tucson in its 3-2 loss at San Jose on March 25 to snap the team’s six-game points streak. Sislo, Mermis, Tye McGinn and Dysin Mayo each picked up assists.
Prior to Strome’s most recent recall, the Roadrunners swept a key two-game set in Stockton, cooling the host Heat by a 3-0 score on March 16 and recording a 2-1 win on March 17.
Rookie goaltender Hunter Miska recorded a 23-save shutout in the March 16 game to notch the first shutout in his pro career while Silso scored twice and Camper delivered three assists. Hill, fresh off a recall to the NHL parent team, stopped 26 of 27 shots in the St. Patrick’s Day rematch to pick up the win between the pipes while Bunting and Garland each scored goals.
Strome recorded one assist on four shots in the two games. Team depth has kept Tucson at the top of the division standings.
Sislo has crept up on Strome in the team scoring race with 46 points (23 goals, 23 assists) to rank second on the team among season regulars. Sislo has a +5 rating to go with eight power play goals and one shorthanded goal in 60 games.
Merkley (18 goals, 39 points), Bunting (18 goals, 37 points) and Kempe (16 goals, 32 points) follow on the score sheet. Miska (2.54 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) ranks second among AHL rookie netminders with 19 wins (trailing Ontario’s Cal Petersen with 21 wins).
Hill (2.40 GAA, .909 save percentage) recorded his first NHL win on March 13 in his fourth start with the Coyotes. He made 34 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped four of five shootout attempts by the Kings to secure the personal milestone victory.
Camper, who arrived from Cleveland in a late February trade, has collected 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in 11 games as a Roadrunner.
The parent Coyotes made a number of last-minute trades at the Feb. 26 NHL trading deadline specifically to improve the Tucson roster in preparation for a hoped-for deep run in the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs.
Defenseman Trevor Murphy, obtained from Nashville Predators organization, received his first NHL call-up on March 20, joining Strome. In 48 games with the AHL Milwaukee Admirals, Murphy had collected eight goals and 26 points. In eight games with Tucson prior to the NHL call-up, he had collected one goal and four points.
Scottsdale native Zac Larraza received a recall to Tucson from Fort Wayne, the Roadrunners’ ECHL affiliate, on March 20. While in Fort Wayne, Larraza recorded seven goals and 25 points in 34 games to go with 48 penalty minutes.
The 25-year-old forward had scored one goal in three games with the Roadrunners in October.
Strome picked up a goal and assist in his first two games during his latest recall by the Coyotes. He scored the opening goal in Arizona’s 4-1 win at Buffalo on March 21 to face off a somewhat daunting six-game East Coast road swing. He added an assist in a 6-5 loss at the Carolina Hurricanes on March 22.
The game in Buffalo paired Strome with Sabres center Jack Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Eichel, who was selected one round ahead of Strome, won the 2015 Hobey Baker Award as a freshman with Boston University after leading the nation in scoring with 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games.
Eichel, a Massachusetts native, has since become an integral player in the Buffalo lineup. He scored a goal in his NHL debut on Oct. 8, 2015, to become the youngest player in Sabres’ history to do so. He finished his rookie season with 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games as Buffalo’s top goalscorer and second overall on the team in points.
Eichel and Strome were both selected behind No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid by the Edmonton Oilers.
McDavid, a former teammate of Strome with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, moved into the 2017-18 NHL scoring lead on March 24 with 96 points (38 goals, 58 assists) after recording two goals in a 3-2 win over the visiting Los Angeles Kings.
Eichel and McDavid are both considered members of a rising class of generational talents in the sport. Strome would like to take his place beside both.
In his last season with the Otters in 2014-15, McDavid piled up 120 points in 47 games. Strome racked up 129 points in 68 games that same season.
The March 21 game against the Coyotes was Eichel’s 200th of his NHL career; Strome has played in a grand total of 21 NHL games with two goals and four points to his credit since being tabbed in the same round as Eichel and McDavid.
Strome acknowledged his time in Tucson has been beneficial in his development as a professional player. At the time of his recall, the 21-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native led all AHL rookies with a 1.06 point-per-game scoring average. He represented the Roadrunners at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic in Utica, N.Y.
“I feel like it’s been going pretty good in Tucson,” he told a group of reporters prior to the game in Buffalo. “I’ve learned the pro game. I’ve just got to play my game and have some fun.”
That both the Roadrunners and Coyotes have striven to follow the same game plan has helped in the transition from the AHL to the NHL level.
“We try to preach the same things down there as they do up here,” Strome said. “We just play our game. The systems are pretty much similar, so if you follow your game plan, you’ll be alright.”
He said the focus of his latest has been to“be confident and have some fun.”
“I think that’s the biggest things,” he said. “It’s hockey, so just have fun and go out and do your thing, be good defensively and the offense will come.”
In 14 games this season with the Coyotes, Strome has recorded two goals and one assist, including two points during his latest call-up.
“It was a good way to start a trip, obviously a long one, six games,” Strome told media members following the win in Buffalo. “It was a good way and get the guys off on the right foot.”
He credited special teams play as a key element in the win over the Sabres. Arizona’s youth movement also provided an impact. Rookie Clayton Keller, the Coyotes’ first-round pick in 2016, dished out a pair of assists to set a club record for points (55) and assists (35) by a rookie in a season since the club relocated from Winnipeg prior to the 1996-97 campaign.
Strome capitalized on his first scoring opportunity in the game by banking a rebound shot off the pads of Buffalo goaltender Chad Johnson into the net.
“The first shift of the recall was a power play, so it’s always nice to get out there and feel the puck a bit,” Strome explained. “’Gos’ (Alex Goligoski) got a good shot. The goalie kicked the rebound and I just threw it back off and in. It’s a play that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it usually goes it front. I was fortunate enough that it went in.
“It feels good. Obviously you want to score and help your team win. I’ve had some success in the American League, so I’m trying to translate it to here. After the goal, I had three or four more shots and a couple good chances. If I can keep that up, hopefully the numbers come. But the two points are important and it felt good to get the win.”
Strome said he feels comfortable on the ice with the Coyotes at this part of the season. When asked what he considers his “game” to be, he responded: “Just have the puck on my stick, make some plays, try to get on the power play, win some face-offs, be defensively responsible, but obviously try to produce and create chances for my linemates when I’m on the ice.”
Despite being eliminated from this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the Coyotes – 13-5-2 during a 20-game stretch – have become one of the hottest teams in the NHL of late.
“They’ve been doing some good things, a good record in the past 15 or 16 games, I think obviously one of the best teams in the league,” Strome said. “I’m going to obviously try to help that and obviously keep the wins rolling here. They’re doing great; hopefully I can add to that.”
After the Coyotes conclude regular season play, Strome will likely return to the Roadrunners for the duration of their season.
Five teams have sewn up berths in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs so far, led by the Atlantic Division-leading Lehigh Valley Phantoms (42-17-4-5, .684 winning percentage) and North Division leading Toronto Marlies (47-18-1-1, .716 winning percentage).
In fact, all four berths in the North Division have been decided, with the Syracuse Crunch (41-19-3-4, .664 winning percentage), Rochester Americans (31-20-10-6, .582 winning percentage) and Utica Comets (33-24-6-4, .567 winning percentage) joining the Marlies in postseason play.
Syracuse finished runner-up in last year’s Calder Cup Finals to the Western Conference champion Grand Rapids Griffins.
In the Pacific Division, Tucson held a six-point lead in the standings on both San Diego (34-21-3-1, .610 winning percentage) and Ontario (33-21-4-2, .600 winning percentage) – its nearest challengers for the rights to this year’s regular season division title.
— Phillip Brents
(March 26, 2018)