Puck finally drops on Roadrunners’ inaugural AHL season
Hey Tucson, get ready for some hockey.
The puck has finally dropped on the Tucson Roadrunners’ inaugural American Hockey League (AHL) season. Though the team’s 5-3 setback to the host San Diego Gulls on Oct. 14 might not exactly have been what Tucson head coach Mark Lamb had in mind, it nevertheless serves as a starting point for the rest of the season.
“Overall, there were some good signs, you got the feel for some of the young guys, new systems, different league and everything, so there were some positive signs,” Lamb offered in a post-game interview. “I really liked our power play, but I didn’t really like our penalty killing, and that speaks for itself if you look at the stats of the game. Defensively, we looked a little bit light back there. The Gulls got cycling, we had a hard time breaking that cycle, and that’s something that we’re going to work on.”
The Roadrunners scored three power play goals in their regular-season debut but coughed up two power play goals to the Gulls that stood up as the difference in the game.
Left wing Craig Cunningham scored the first regular season goal in AHL Tucson history 2:17 into the second period to erase an early 2-0 San Diego lead. The Gulls would extend their lead to 4-1 with just over 10 minutes to play in the Pacific Division contest before the Runners made it a one-goal game – 4-3 – by scoring goals just 1:38 apart with just over five minutes remaining in the third period.
But San Diego responded by scoring an insurance goal with 1:22 left to play to ice the season opening win.
Cunningham finished the night with two goals for Tucson, while defenseman Kyle Wood led the Roadrunners with three points on a goal and two assists. Former Gull Chris Mueller chipped in with two assists. San Diego out-shot Tucson 43-32. Goaltender Justin Peters stopped 38 shots for the Arizona visitors.
For his two-goal effort, Cunningham received third star honors. San Diego right wing Corey Tropp earned first honor honors with a goal and two assists and teammate Antoine Laganiere received second star honors with a pair of goals.
Center Ryan MacInnis recorded the first penalty in AHL Tucson history after being called for holding at 5:58 of the first period.
The game – viewed by a raucous gathering of 10,727 at the Valley View Casino Center – featured five power play goals between the teams. The Roadrunners finished 3-for-6, while the Gulls finished 2-for-6.
“There’s a lot of different ways to lose a hockey game, and I thought discipline was a huge factor tonight, and that’s something that you can really clean up,” Lamb noted. “We’ll go over it and get better in that area.”
Despite the opening game setback, Lamb said goals and expectations for his team remain the same.
“Goals and expectations all the time are to develop hockey players and win hockey games,” Lamb said. “That’s exactly what we’re going to try to do.”
Tucson drew a tough road opponent in San Diego. The Gulls finished second to the Pacific Division champion Ontario Reign in last season’s division standings and advanced to the division finals against the Reign in the Calder Cup playoffs.
What was Lamb looking for his team to accomplish in its first road game?
“You want to establish good play, you want to establish an identity in how you want to play on the road,” the Roadrunner coach explained. “There were some parts that we need to work on and it showed. There were parts of our game – like our power play — that was excellent.”
“We’ve got a lot of time to practice this week and we’ll get better at it.”
The Roadrunners will play two more road games before making their regular season debut against the Stockton Heat on Oct. 28 at the Tucson Arena. The Runners will play at Stockton on Oct. 21 and at Bakersfield on Oct. 22.
The Roadrunners received their first series of player assignments from the Arizona Coyotes, Tucson’s NHL parent club, on Sept. 29: defenseman Brandon Burlon and forwards Mark Olver and Matia Marcantuoni.
Fifteen more players were assigned on Oct. 2: goaltenders Adin Hill and Marek Langhamer; defensemen Justin Hache, Wood and Dysin Mayo; left wings Garret Ross, Eric Selleck, Brendan Perlini and Michael Bunting; right wings Henrik Samuelsson, Conor Garland and Cunningham; and centers Mueller, MacInnis and Tyler Gaudet.
Five more players – Peters, defensemen Anthony DeAngelo and Dakota Mermis and right wings Stefan Fournier and Christian Fischer – were assigned on Oct. 8.
The Roadrunners’ opening night active roster featured 23 players: 15 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders.
Of those 23 players, 14 were holdovers from last season’s Springfield Falcons’ AHL roster (prior to that club’s relocation to Tucson). Cunningham and Wood led the group that also included Gaudet, MacInnis, Samuelsson, Bunting, Marcantuoni, Fischer, Fournier, Selleck, Hache, Mayo, Mermis and Langhamer.
Newcomers included Mueller, Burlon, Olver, Garland, Perlini, Ross, DeAngelo, Peters and center Trevor Cheek (signed to a professional tryout contract).
Samuelsson, Marcantuoni and Cheek were scratches for the season opener.
The starting lineup against San Diego included Perlini, Cunningham, Mueller, DeAngelo, Mermis and Peters.
Lamb said Cunningham, Selleck and Mueller are being counted on as the Roadrunners’ veteran leaders this season.
Cunningham led Springfield in scoring last season with 22 goals and 46 points in 61 regular season games.
Bunting had 11 goals and 25 points in 63 games while Selleck had 10 goals and 22 points in 60 games.
Hache had two goals and 14 points in 67 games while Gaudet had four goals and 13 points in 44 games and Mermis had three goals and 13 points in 63 games.
Langhamer compiled a 7-9-2 record between the pipes with a 3.80 goals-against average and .883 save percentage.
Mueller tied for the scoring lead with 57 points (20 goals, 37 assists) in 63 games last season with the Gulls before signing with the Coyotes during the off-season.
Tucson trailed 1-0 after the opening period as San Diego’s Corey Tropp scored a power play goal at the 8:07 mark with assists going to Tyler Morley and Kevin Roy
The Gulls doubled their lead just 51 seconds into the second period on a goal by Mike Sgarbossa, assisted by Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour.
Cunningham knocked in a rebound just 16 seconds into a power play after San Diego’s Nate Guenin had been sent to the sin bin for a cross-checking penalty. Assists on Cunningham’s milestone goal went to Perlini and Wood.
The excitement level of the game picked up appreciably at that point as both teams exchanged numerous scoring chances. The crowd got even more charged up when Gulls wing Nick Tarnasky (297 PIM in 245 NHL games) and Tucson’s Stefan Fournier (78 PIM in 32 games in Springfield last season) engaged in fisticuffs.
The Gulls potted their second power play goal of the game at 17:43 of the middle stanza as Kalle Kossila notched his first goal of the season off passes from Tropp and rookie Andrew Welinski.
Laganiere scored both San Diego goals in the third period – the first at 9:22 and the second at 18:38. Montour and Welinski assisted Laganiere on the first goal while Tropp and Theodore assisted on the second goal, a power play goal.
Sandwiched between Laganiere’s deuce were two man-power goals by the Roadrunners that created a bit of an anxiety among fans inside the packed building.
Cunningham notched his second goal of the game at 12:37 with Montour in the box serving a high sticking penalty. Mueller and Wood drew the assists as Tucson narrowed the score to 4-2.
Wood then made it a one-goal game at 14:15 – just eight seconds after the Gulls’ Joseph Cramarossa had been sent off the ice for elbowing.
The teams skated with a one-goal difference for 4:23 until the hosts sealed the win with Laganiere’s insurance goal.
The Roadrunners finished the last 47 seconds of the contest on the power play when Gulls defensman Jeff Schultz was penalized for cross-checking. Tucson pulled its goaltender in favor of an extra attacker (to hold a two-man advantage) but the Roadrunners were not able to score on San Diego starter Dustin Tokarski (29 saves on 32 shots), and the Gulls were not able to dent the empty Tucson net.
The game ended with excited San Diego fans waving white rally towels.
Mueller admitted he had mixed feelings about his Gulls’ homecoming.
“It was hard,” he said. “It kind of made me upset driving here last night. It was unbelievable, one of the best places to play, I think – the fans, the way I was treated, the coaches, I got a lot of friends here. I would love to have come back but hockey and business is business. It was nice to see everybody. I didn’t surprise me they filled the building tonight.”
And what does he think about his new team?
“We’re going to be good,” Mueller offered. “We’re young. We’re a work in progress. We’ve got a lot of highly touted prospects, young guys with a couple old guys to right the ship and show them the way.
“Tucson is great, a great town. Me and my wife are just moving in. I can’t complain. The weather’s a little hot but anything that gets me out of another winter I’m happy about.”
Tucson fans got their first look at many of the Roadrunners during the Red/White scrimmage on Oct. 9 at Tucson Arena. The event, which took place just three days before the start of the NHL regular season, served as a debut for a new era of pro hockey in the city as well as a fundraiser for the University of Arizona’s ice hockey program. The event was non-ticketed but fans were asked to make a $5 donation to the university team.
The following day, on Oct. 10, the Roadrunners presented Wildcats head coach Chad Berman and several of his players with a check for $9,000. The donation event also served as the official unveiling of the Roadrunners’ home and road jerseys.
From the Roadrunners’ standpoint, the fundraiser was a gesture of goodwill for the two organizations that will share Tucson Arena this hockey season.
“I thought it was good,” the Roadrunners’ Lamb said. “These games are always a little scary for the players who play in them because training camp is over and the regular season is starting right away, so you don’t want any injuries but you want to play hard. I thought it was pretty enjoyable for the fans. It was kind of like an all-star game – you get to see a lot of goals, a lot of good saves and some pretty good passing plays.”
The scrimmage was divided into Red and White teams and included players from both the Roadrunners and Coyotes. The teams combined for 12 goals – seven for the White Team and five for the Red Team – to the delight of the 4,500 fans who attended the event.
Mueller (Red Team) and Marcantuoni (White Team) each scored goals representing Tucson while Christian Dvorak scored two goals representing the Coyotes. The Roadrunners’ Bunting, Selleck, Mermis and Burlon each picked up assists. Other goal-scorers for the Coyotes included Radim Vrbata, Dylan Strome (third overall pick by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft ), Ryan White and Anthony Duclair.
The scrimmage also served to cement a bond between the Roadrunners and Coyotes players.
“I think it’s good for both teams to get to know each other and to be comfortable with each other as we go forward,” Coyotes veteran winger Shane Doan explained. “It takes so many guys to be successful at the NHL level. It takes a ton of guys from the AHL, and for them to be comfortable enough with the guys in the NHL makes a huge difference I think.”
Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett applauded the event and the ties between the NHL and AHL clubs. “There will be lots of interchange between players, between management down here, scouts here. This is one of the biggest things to happen to our organization in a long time — this team getting established down here. It’s just a real positive for the organization.”
Tucson played two preseason games prior to facing off its inaugural AHL season. The Roadrunners came up short by a score of 4-2 to the San Jose Barracuda on Oct. 6 in their first outing as a team; the Arizona team was edged, 3-2, by the Stockton Heat the following night to conclude its Northern California road trip.
Samuelsson and Wood scored goals in the loss to San Jose while Langhamer got the start in net.
Hill (who was subsequently assigned to the ECHL Rapid City Rush) was the talk of the game in Stockton after making 34 saves. Lindsay Sparks (also later sent to Rapid City) and Wood scored goals for Tucson.
Lamb said the focus of the preseason contests was to observe players in game situations, especially the team’s veteran players, and players on the roster still on tryout contracts. It also marked the split from the Coyotes training camp – these players were now the Tucson Roadrunners.
The Los Angeles Kings’ and Coyotes’ rookies got together for a pair of games Sept. 20-21 at Gila River Arena in Glendale during rookie camp. Lamb served as coach of the Arizona rookies.
The Coyotes dropped the opener 3-1, but came back to win the second game by a score of 2-1. Bunting and Garland each scored power-play goals to salvage a win in the two-game series. Dvorak scored the lone goal for the Coyotes in the first game.
The primary focus for coaching staffs during training camp is to assess players’ ability to compete and execute. Lamb said he likes the youth spread throughout the entire organization. “I think there’s some exciting players with some speed and some skill, and when you have players like that, it’s exciting hockey,” he said.
Ontario opened defense of its Pacific Division championship by dealing the Gulls a 2-0 home ice setback on Oct. 15. The Reign – powered by second period goals from T.J. Hensick and Michael Mersch and buttressed by 36 saves from goaltender Jack Campbell – improved to 1-0 while San Diego dropped to 1-1. Each team was whistled for 24 minutes in penalties.
Campbell (shutout win) earned first star billing while Ontario teammate Sean Backman (two assists) received second star recognition.
Stockton defeated visiting San Jose, 3-2, in the Pacific Division season opener for both teams on Oct. 15. Matt Frattin, Hunter Shinkaruk and Ryan Lomberg scored for Stockton while David O’Reagan and Barclay Goodrow scored for San Jose. Lomberg received first star honors for scoring the game-winning goal in front of 5,745 fans at Stockton Arena.
Tucson will bus to most Pacific Division games, but will take wing by air for games against the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg, Canada) and the Charlotte Checkers (North Carolina). The Runners will also fly to San Jose for games in Northern California.
It’s estimated Tucson will log more than 26,000 miles in travel this season.
Prior to the season opener against the Gulls, the Roadrunners spent three days practicing on the ice at Gila Bend Arena in Glendale, Ariz. The team then bused over to San Diego – and 8.5-hour trip.
By the numbers
Joining Tucson in the Pacific Division are San Diego, Ontario, Bakersfield, San Jose, Stockton, San Antonio and Texas. The Roadrunners will play 68 regular season games alongside the Pacific Division’s five California teams while both San Antonio and Texas will each play 76 games (as will the rest of the league’s teams).
Because of the imbalance of games played within the Pacific Division, playoff berths will be based on points-percentage (points earned divided by possible points). The top four teams in the division based on points-percentage qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.
The Oct. 28 match-up against Stockton is the start of a five-game home stand for the Roadrunners that includes two games against the Heat, one game against the Texas Stars and two games against Ontario before hitting the road for a pair of games in Bakersfield. Then it’s back to the Tucson Arena for a six-game home stand starting Nov. 18.
Tucson Roadrunner firsts
First goal: Craig Cunningham
First power play goal: Craig Cunningham
Most goals, single game: Craig Cunningham (2)
Most power play goals, single game: Craig Cunningham (2)
Most assists, single game: Kyle Wood (2), Chris Mueller (2)
Most points, single game: Kyle Wood (1 goal, 2 assists)
First penalty: Ryan MacInnis
First fighting major: Stefan Fournier
Photos and story/Phillip Brents