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AHL’s Roadrunners racing toward Calder Cup playoffs berth

 

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The Tucson Roadrunners continue to rack up precious standings points through the mid-winter grind as the second-year American Hockey League (AHL) club quests toward what could be a history-making appearance in the upcoming Calder Cup championship playoffs.

The Roadrunners picked up a valuable three of four standings points in a two-game weekend home set against the San Antonio Rampage Feb. 23-24 to improve its Pacific Division leading record to 29-16-3-1. The team’s .633 winning percentage ranks second only to the Central Division leading Manitoba Moose (.670 winning percentage) among the AHL’s 15 Western Conference teams.

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Tucson held a five-point lead in the division standings over the second place San Diego Gulls in games played through Feb. 25. This is the latest in a season that the second-year Roadrunners have held onto first place in the division standings.

Tucson missed last year’s Calder Cup playoffs after finishing sixth in the eight-team standings. The Roadrunners finished 11 points behind the division’s final playoff qualifier.

The top four finishers in the division qualify for this year’s playoffs.

The dash to the playoffs, however, look to be a grind of its own. Tucson leads the Stockton Heat, the division’s current fourth place team, by a mere .051 percentage points in what has turned into the most competitive division in the 31-team AHL. All eight teams in the Pacific Division sport .500 or better records.

It’s much too early to call the race over for the regular season division title – or even the division’s four playoff berths.

As the number of games dwindle on the regular season calendar, each game will seem like a championship game to each of the teams contending for a playoff berth.

“There’s a lot of parity in the league, especially in our division,” Tucson first-year head coach Mike Van Ryn said. “There’s a lot of good teams. Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. It makes it fun. It challenges you as a team; it challenges you as a coach.

“Everybody is getting better. That’s the goal in the American Hockey League. All the games are big. Every two points is big.”

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The three-point showing in the weekend set against the Rampage improved he Roadrunners’ record to 6-3-1 in its last 10 games as the team continues to drive the top of the division.

Tucson used a goal by Mike Sislo, his 17th of the season, at 1:40 of overtime to top San Antonio, 2-1, in a Feb. 23 game. Lane Pederson got the Roadrunners rolling with a goal late in the first period before the Rampage tied the game in the second period.

Laurent Dauphin recorded assists on both Tucson goals, his 19th and 20 assists of the season.

Goaltender Adin Hill earned first star of the game honors by stopping 31 of 32 shots. The win was his 13th of the season.

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The rematch on Feb. 24 proved to be a defensive standoff as both teams failed to score in regulation. The Roadrunners piled up a 44-10 shot advantage in 60 minutes but could not crack the armor of San Antonio rookie standout Ville Husso.

The Rampage registered the only shot in overtime as Andrew Agozzino beat Hill 27 seconds into the extra period for the game-winner. Hill stopped 10 of 11 shots in absorbing the loss and stopped 41 of 43 shots in the two games (.953 save percentage).

Husso, who improved to 13-8-3 with a 2.28 goals-against average, three shutouts and a .932 save percentage as the league’s top rookie netminder, stopped 44 shots to record the 1-0 shutout win in front of 4,637 fans at Tucson Arena.

The Roadrunners attracted 4,567 fans for the Feb. 23 contest as the birds continue to build a fan base in their second season in Arizona.

Tucson also continues to build players for the NHL parent Arizona Coyotes organization.

Rookies Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley lead the Roadrunners in season scoring. Strome has collected 20 goals and 47 points in 40 AHL games this season while Merkley has recorded 18 goals and 35 points in 29 games.

Both players, taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, have received NHL call-ups this season.

Strome has appeared in 11 games with the Coyotes with one goal; Merkley has appeared in one game with no points.

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Strome appears to be in a race for the league’s rookie scoring title with Manitoba’s Mason Appleton. The Moose forward had collected 18 goals and 51 points in 56 games to lead the league.

However, Strome owns a superior point-production average with 1.18 points per game to Appleton’s 0.91 points per game.

Merkely tops both players with a 1.21 points per game average.

Sislo, 30, ranks third in team scoring with 17 goals and 34 points, followed by forward Michael Bunting with 14 goals and 30 points. Bunting, 22, is a fourth-round pick from the 2014 draft. Sislo, who went undrafted after four years at the University of New Hampshire, has made a definite impact in his first season with Tucson.

Rookie defenseman Kyle Capobianco, a third-round pick by the Coyotes in 2015, leads the Roadrunners with 23 assists.

Capobianco, like both Strome and Merkley, is just 20 years old.

Tucson rookie goaltender Hunter Miska, 22, has had a good start to his pro career with a 15-6-0 record, 2.77 GAA and .900 save percentage.

All-Star Classic

Van Ryn coached the Pacific Division All-Star team to a runner-up finish to the North Division All-Star team at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 28-29 in Utica, N.Y.

The Pacific Division All-Stars featured three players off Van Ryn’s high achieving Tucson club: rookies Strome, Merkley and Capobianco.

Van Ryn called the two-day event “a great experience.”

“It was a lot of fun,” the Tucson coach said. “The AHL did a wonderful job putting it on. It was first class. It was fun to get to know some of the players from the other teams. We spent some time with the other coaches. It was definitely nice to have my family, my wife and kids, there as well as my parents. It was a great event and a lot of fun.”

The two-day event, which attracted some of the league’s top young talent, was divided into two parts. The first day featured an all-star skills challenge between the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. The second day featured an all-star challenge tournament between the league’s four geographic divisions.

Merkley led all scorers in the all-star challenge with seven points (two goals, five assists) while Capobianco ranked second with six points (three goals, three assists).

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Strome, who collected three goals and four points in the Pacific Division’s four games, ranked eighth overall, fifth on the Pacific Division team, in scoring.

Merkley’s 1.75 points per game was the highest recorded by any player in this year’s all-star challenge.

The all-star challenge featured a round-robin format in which each game was played three-on-three for 10 minutes. The top two teams based on round-robin record then faced off in a single six-minute three-on-three contest for the tournament championship.

The Pacific Division team, which featured players from all eight teams in the division, qualified for the championship game by winning all three of its round-robin games.

The Pacific Division defeated the North Division, 5-3, in the opening game. Capobianco (two goals, three assists) and Merkley (one goal, four assists) took charge of the Pacific Division offense with five points apiece while San Jose rookie Rudolfs Balcers scored two goals.

The Pacific Division defeated the Atlantic Division, 4-3, in its second game. Strome led the way with two goals while San Diego defenseman Andy Welinski scored once. Stockton’s Rasmus Andersson and San Antonio’s Rocco Grimaldi each chipped in with two assists while Ontario’s Brett Sutter and Bakersfield’s Ty Rattie each picked up one assist.

The Pacific Division closed out the round-robin with a 4-3 win over the Central Division. Strome collected one goal and one assist while Capobianco scored one goal to highlight the Roadrunners’ contribution to the victory. Andersson (two goals, one assist) and Grimaldi (three assists) led the team in scoring with three points each.

The North Division defeated the Atlantic Division, 4-3, in comeback fashion to earn a berth in the championship game.

The Pacific Division out-shot the North Division 4-3 but the North’s C.J. Smith (Rochester Americans) was the only player to score as the North posted a 1-0 shutout win to win this year’s all-star challenge tournament.

Strome, Balcers, Grimaldi and Rattie each rattled off shots against the North goaltending tandem of Linus Ullmark (Rochester) and Thatcher Demko (Utica Comets).

Ontario’s Cal Petersen surrendered the only goal in the championship game. The rookie netminder finished with a strong showing by allowing just one goal in each of the four games. San Jose’s Antoine Bibeau allowed six goals in the four-game stretch.

Andersson (two goals, three assists) and Grimaldi (five assists) ranked in a tie for third in scoring on the Pacific Division team with five points. The two Pacific Division all-stars were part of a five-way tie for third in scoring in the tournament along with Smith (three goals, two assists) and North all-star teammate Mitchell Stephens (two goals, three assists) of the Syracuse Crunch and Atlantic All-Star Valentin Zykov (five assists) of the Charlotte Checkers.

Sutter served as the Pacific Division team captain.

Van Ryn said he didn’t do anything special to account for the Pacific Division team’s success.

“We just played; I just coached them,” he said. “It was like minor hockey – they went in one door and out the other, so it was all (about) the players.”

“It was a good time,” Strome related. “It was a lot of fun meeting new players and getting to showcase our skills.

“The games were a lot of fun. The crowd was pretty into it. It was fun to play three-on-three. It was a lot of fun, a lot more open ice. We enjoyed it. We got to play with some new players, players I had never even met before. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it.”

Strome said once on the ice, the players’ competitive fire took control.

“If you’re a hockey player, you want to win,” the Tucson rookie standout explained. “You want to do the best you can, so we tried our hardest and had a lot of fun. We beat that team in the round-robin but lost to them in the final. But it wasn’t too serious; it was all fun.”

Van Ryn said the three Roadrunners contributed to the overall success of the Pacific Division team.

“They played well,” the Tucson coach assessed. “The skills competition was a little different story. They didn’t do so well there. But I thought they were able to contribute in the games and it looked like they had fun.”

The Eastern Conference defeated the Western Conference by a score of 18-12 to win the skills competition.

Springfield’s Alexandre Grenier of the Eastern Conference’s Springfield Thunderbirds won the hardest shot competition at 104.1 mph. It was the third-hardest shot ever measured in an AHL skills competition.

John Gilmour of the Eastern Conference’s Hartford Wolf Pack won the fastest skater award with a lap of 13.633 seconds.

The Eastern Conference won the breakaway relay by a score of 8-3 while the teams finished in a 2-2 standoff in the puck control relay.

The Western Conference won the pass and score competition by a score of 6-2.

Jordan Binnington of the Providence Bruins and Petersen shared the top goaltender award as each turned aside 16 of 18 shots on the evening. Petersen did make history by becoming the fifth goaltender ever to stop all 10 attempts in the rapid fire contest.

Chris Bourque of the Hershey Bears and Chris Terry of the Laval Rocket shared the accuracy shooting award by each breaking four targets in five attempts.

Merkley and Strome each hit three targets in the accuracy shooting contest.

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Manitoba’s Cam Schilling posted the hardest shot at 102 mph among Western Conference shooters; Andersson tied for third best overall at 101.5 mph.

Rockford’s Matthew Highmore posted the top time of 13.949 seconds for the Western Conference in the fastest skater contest.

Welinski recorded the second-fastest time of 14.010 for the Western Conference in the fastest skater contest and turned in the fourth-best mark of 97.8 mph for the Western Conference in the hardest shot competition.

Border war

The Gulls lead the Roadrunners by one point in the teams’ Interstate 8 Border Trophy rivalry series through nine of 12 regular season meetings. San Diego has a 5-4-0-0 record while Tucson is 4-4-0-1.

The teams play the final three games in the regular season against one another – the first in San Diego on April 11 and the final two in Tucson on April 13-14.

The Roadrunners play 11 of their final 19 regular season games on the road as the stretch run for the playoffs begins.

Trading places

The NHL trade deadline was Monday, Feb. 26.

Last-minute deals involving the Coyotes with other NHL teams also had ramifications for the Roadrunners, the Coyotes’ top developmental team. The Coyotes acquired forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie and defenseman Trevor Murphy from the Nashville Predators in exchange for forward Tyler Gaudet and defenseman John Ramage.

In addition, the Roadrunners acquired forward Derek Army from the Milwaukee Admirals for future considerations.

Labrie has recorded five goals and seven assists for 12 points in 50 AHL games with the Milwaukee Admirals this season. The 11th-year pro is a veteran of 616 AHL games, notching 87 goals and 108 assists for 195 points, and won a Calder Cup championship with Norfolk in 2012.

Murphy, 22, has eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points in 48 games with Milwaukee this season. In 182 AHL games over three seasons with the Admirals, Murphy has recorded 31 goals and 60 assists for 91 points.

Army, 26, has notched one goal and four assists in 22 games with Milwaukee this season. He has skated in a total of 95 contests in the AHL over the last three seasons, totaling 11 goals and 15 assists.

Gaudet, 24, has 11 goals and 11 assists for 22 points in 48 games for Tucson this season. The fourth-year pro has amassed 29 goals and 48 assists for 77 points in 227 career AHL games with the Coyotes’ affiliates in Tucson, Springfield and Portland.

Ramage has played 45 games between Tucson and Cleveland this season, recording four goals and eight assists. The fifth-year pro has appeared in 289 career AHL games with Cleveland, Adirondack and Abbotsford, totaling 19 goals and 61 assists for 80 points. He was a member of the Monsters’ Calder Cup championship team in 2016.

In separate deals on Monday, the Roadrunners acquired forward Carter Camper from Cleveland Monsters for future considerations while the Coyotes acquired forward Jordan Maletta from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Ryan Kujawinski.

Camper, an AHL All-Star in 2012, has collected 29 assists and 42 points in 53 AHL games with Cleveland this season.

Camper has played 428 AHL games with Cleveland, Albany, Hershey, Binghamton, Springfield and Providence, totaling 84 goals and 227 assists for 311 points. He has 17 goals and 20 assists for 37 points in 42 career playoff games. He reached the Calder Cup Finals with Hershey in 2016.

Camper, undrafted out of Miami University, has one goal in three career NHL games — all with Boston in 2011-12.

Maletta has tallied four assists in 28 AHL games with the Cleveland this season. He played all 76 games for Cleveland as a rookie in 2016-17, notching 12 goals and 11 assists.

Kujawinski has one goal and three assists for four points in 24 AHL games between Binghamton and Tucson this season.

The third-year pro from Kirkland Lake, Ont., has appeared in 115 career AHL games, recording 13 goals and 24 assists for 37 points.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(Feb. 27, 2018)