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‘Huge’ win over Gulls boosts Roadrunners as stretch run approaches

 

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Few would dispute that the Tucson Roadrunners have had a memorable first season in the American Hockey League.

Some might say even a bit too memorable in some respects.

The perfect ending to the team’s inaugural season would, of course, be a berth in the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs.

But getting there is the immediate challenge.

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The Roadrunners recorded one of their most important wins of the 2016-17 campaign when they defeated the streaking San Diego Gulls, 5-2, on Feb. 18. The key victory ended Tucson’s five-game losing streak and catapulted the Roadrunners from fifth place in the AHL’s Pacific Division standings into fourth place.

The top four teams in the eight-team division qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs. The Roadrunners will obviously need many more big wins over the balance of the season in order to reach postseason play.

Tucson (22-18-5-0, .544 winning percentage) is currently in fourth place while the Texas Stars (24-20-1-2, .531 winning percentage) are a scant 0.013 percentage points behind in fifth place.

It looks to be an exciting finish for one team and a heart-breaking finish for another.

Tucson head coach Mark Lamb called the team’s win in San Diego against the second place Gulls “huge.”

“It’s huge to get a win,” Lamb explained. “When you’re on a losing streak a lot of good things have to happen for you to get out of it. It doesn’t matter when you get out of it – the quicker you get out of it the better, but a lot of things happen, people’s minds start to wander all over the place, negative thoughts come in, and it starts to snowball.

“When you win against the best team in the league pretty much, it’s a real huge character win. A win is a win, it doesn’t matter against who, but when you’re playing against a team like San Diego, I think it makes it a little sweeter.”

The Feb. 18 victory was the first in regulation play over the Gulls in seven meetings this season. The Roadrunners have now beaten every division opponent in regulation play this season except division leader San Jose.

Lamb hopes the team’s latest win reverses a trend that had seen his team produce an anemic 1-8-1 record in its 10 previous games.

Certainly, the manner in which the Roadrunners pulled off their latest win certainly has to be encouraging. The Gulls, buoyed by a sellout crowd of 12,920, sped out to a 2-0 lead only to be overcome by five unanswered Tucson goals.

Right wing Branden Troock earned No. 1 star of the game honors with one goal and one assist while rookie goaltender Adin Hill received the game’s third star by making 36 saves.

Hill, a third-round pick by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Draft, proved spectacular between the pipes for the Arizona visitors as the hosts piled up a 38-26 shot advantage in the game.

Hill stopped all 10 shots he faced in the opening period, though the Gulls opened up a 2-0 lead by scoring the first two goals in the middle frame – both by Nic Kerdiles.

The Roadrunners finally got on the scoreboard on a power play goal by former Gull Chris Mueller, who notched his 11th goal of the season off a set-up pass from Tucson teammate Anthony DeAngelo, with 1:36 left in the second period.

The Roadrunners tied the game 3:05 into the third period when veteran Zbynek Michalek’s drive from the point beat a screened Jhonas Enroth, who had been spectacular since joining the Gulls in mid-January with a 9-1 record, 1.20 GAA and .954 save percentage.

Enroth, acquired by the NHL Anaheim Ducks, the Gulls’ parent club, in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, had won his first eight games with San Diego and was the architect of the team’s recent 12-game points streak (11-0-0-1) that had catapulted the Gulls from sixth place to second place in the division standings.

Troock and Ryan MacInnis received assists on Michalek’s game-tying goal.

Enroth made 21 saves in the loss to Tucson while allowing four third-period goals. He fell to 10-2-0 in 12 appearances with San Diego this season.

Meanwhile, Hill was particularly effective in the third period when the Gulls out-shot the Roadrunners 17-6.

The Gulls dominated long stretches of the period, peppering Hill with multiple excellent scoring chances, but the Tucson netminder kept the game tied, 2-2, with huge saves off point-blank shots by Shea Thoedore and Nick Sorensen.

The Roadrunners supported Hills’ defensive effort by shocking the Gulls with three goals in the final 7:26 of the contest.

MacInnis gave Tucson its first lead of the game, 3-2, at 12:34 when his wrist shot off a rush beat Enroth. Dakota Mermis received credit for the helper.

The Roadrunners doubled their lead at 15:36 when Troock, who previously appeared for the AHL Texas Stars and ECHL Idaho Steelheads this season, notched his first goal of the season with Tucson off passes from Mitch Moroz and DeAngelo.

Laurent Dauphin added a late empty-net goal at 19:11 as he blindly whipped a shot backward out of the Tucson defensive zone that was bulls-eye on target into the vacant San Diego net.

The victory was just the seventh road win for the Roadrunners this season.

Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins was highly complimentary of the effort put forth by the 20-year-old Hill.

“I thought their goalie was incredible in the third period,” Eakins remarked. “We went into their building about a month ago and took three straight games from them. They were a highly-motivated group tonight.”

The Roadrunners’ success during the third period came after Tucson players delivered big body checks on Gulls players.

Lamb said the rising energy level in the third period helped his team record the come-from-behind victory.

“That’s how you have to play,” the Tucson coach said after the game. “This game is a game that you have to play the right way. We were playing to win, and so were they. The emotions started running high, the physicality started going up, it really just turned into a real fight.

“The energy there in the third period was as high as it’s been all year, and that teaches your team a lot of lessons. It teaches your team lessons of where you have to get to win, how deep you have to get to get out of a losing streak, so it was just a great way to end the game for us.

“Our physicality and our blocking shots has come a long way in our game, and that’s just another way of paying the price, and if you don’t do that it doesn’t give you a chance to win. I can’t say enough about ‘Hiller.’ How many times has he done that for us this year? We’re getting used to it. It might have been the best he’s been all year long in that third period.”

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Hill, who blanked the Gulls on five power plays in the game, improved to 13-7-4 with a 2.84 GAA and .917 save percentage.

Mueller leads the Roadrunners in season scoring with 42 points (11 goals, 31 assists) in 45 games. He has eight points (four goals, four assists) in seven games against his former team this season.

DeAngelo (two assists) recorded his third multi-point effort of the season for Tucson.

The Roadrunners were facing a hot San Diego team. Despite the loss, the Gulls are 10-2-0 in their last 12 games, have won 17 of their last 21 games (17-3-0-1) overall and have earned standings points in 16 of their last 18 games (15-2-0-1).

The Roadrunners’ current predicament comes in stark contrast to the first half of the season in which the Tucson team hovered near the top of the division standings. In fact, the Roadrunners occupied first place on two separate occasions – during the month of October and near the end of December.

Since then, the Runners have fallen off the pace with an 8-12-2 record since last occupying first place.

Tucson wraps up its current six-game road swing with a game in Ontario on Feb. 22 and returns home for three home games – Feb. 24-25 against first place San Jose and Feb. 28 against San Diego – before hitting the road again for five games.

The Roadrunners face the top three teams in the division – San Jose, San Diego and Ontario – in their next nine games.

Tucson is 1-4 on its current road trip. The schedule certainly doesn’t get any easier from here.

The Roadrunners’ playoff hopes could very well be determined in their next 10 games.

Lamb hopes the Feb. 18 win over the Gulls sends his team in the right direction.

“You always have to start building somewhere when you’re on a streak, and what a place to start building,” Lamb explained. “We’ll enjoy it. We’ve been on the road for 18 days, it’s going to be nice to get back for a day, practice on our own rink, and get on the road again. We just want to breathe a little bit right now.”

All-Star Classic

The AHL’s 2017 All-Star Classic took place Jan. 29-30 at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa., home arena of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Pacific Division team included two players from the Roadrunners: forward Christian Fischer and defenseman Kyle Wood.

The two-day event, played before sellout crowds of 8,451, featured an All-Star skills competition on Jan. 29 and a four-team round-robin All-Star Challenge on Jan. 30.

The Western Conference prevailed over the Eastern Conference, 15-11, to win the skills challenge. The seven events included puck control relay, fastest skater, rapid-fire, hardest shot, accuracy shooting, pass and score, and breakaway relay.

Wood captured the hardest shot competition with a shot registered at 99.3 mph, while Fischer hit four of the six targets (tied for second) in the accuracy shooting competition.

Wood said it was the first time his shot had been measured.

“It was a fun week back there,” he said. “It was a cool event.”

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The All-Star Challenge featured six 10-minute mini-games in round-robin format, plus a six-minute championship game. All mini-games were played three-on-three.

The Pacific Division All-Stars faced each of the other divisional all-star squads. The Pacific Division dropped a 6-3 decision to the North Division in its opener, then fell by a 6-1 score to the Atlantic Division and 5-3 to the Central Division.

San Jose forward Daniel O’Regan paced the Pacific Division All-Stars with three goals while Wood collected two goals and one assist. Fischer also notched three points on one goal and two assists.

The Central Division All-Stars repeated as challenge champions after recording a 1-0 victory against the Atlantic Division All-Stars on a goal by Grand Rapids Griffins forward Matt Lorito in the fourth round of a shootout.

The final 2017 All-Star rosters featured 41 first-time participants, 13 AHL rookies and 14 former first- and second-round NHL draft choices. Also, 27 of this year’s All-Stars had already received call-ups to the National Hockey League this season.

The AHL honored Tucson captain Craig Cunningham with special No. 14 warm-up jerseys at this year’s event. AHL president and CEO David Andrews said the league wanted to bring Cunningham to the All-Star weekend but couldn’t because of travel restrictions.

Cunningham, 26, collapsed during a pregame warm-up in November and underwent new and advanced techniques to save his life. Part of his left leg had to be amputated due to infection during his recovery process, ending his hockey career.

Fischer called it a “classy move by the AHL.”

“Craig probably saw it on social media, he’s probably smiling,” Fischer said. “It’s a pretty nice tribute from the (league).”

What’s trending

Though the Pacific Division standings continue to remain fluid, the three front-running teams appear to have gained some measurable separation from the rest of the five teams in the division.

Braced by a franchise-record 12-game winning streak, the San Jose Barracuda has taken over the division lead with a 31-11-1-3 record (.717 winning percentage) while San Diego, feeding off a six-game home winning streak, has moved into second place with a 28-14-2-2 record (.652 winning percentage).

The lengthy hot streaks have allowed both teams to displace the Ontario Reign atop the division standings. The Reign, last year’s Pacific Division champion, is in third place with a 26-13-8-0 record (.638 winning percentage).

The Roadrunners sit .094 percentage points behind Ontario, but are just .044 percentage points ahead of the sixth place Bakersfield Condors (20-20-5-1, .500 winning percentage).

The Stockton Heat (19-21-4-1, .478 winning percentage) is in seventh place while the San Antonio Rampage (21-27-4-1, .443 winning percentage) are in eighth place.

Both Tucson and Stockton spent considerable time in first place in the division standings during the first half of the season.

San Jose netminder Troy Grosenick has won his last 10 starts during which he has compiled a 1.40 GAA, .954 save percentage and two shutouts. He’s held opponents to one goal or less on seven occasions. He leads the league with a 1.97 GAA, .934 save percentage and league-leading seven shutouts.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents