Roadrunners making the grade as first-year AHL club
Nearing the halfway point of the 2016-17 American Hockey League (AHL) season, the Pacific Division standings remain fluid with just 0.075 percentage points separating the top four teams.
Another 0.055 percentage points separate the bottom four teams in the eight team division.
Five teams have spent time in first place so far this season, including the fledgling Tucson Roadrunners, the top development team of the Arizona Coyotes.
The Roadrunners took command by speeding to a meteoric 7-1-1 start to begin a month-long stay atop the division standings before being supplanted by the Stockton Heat in early December. By the end of the month, Tucson was in first place again before ceding the top spot to the Ontario Reign to close out the 2016 calendar year.
It’s uncertain at this time which team will capture this season’s division title, though the Roadrunners certainly look to be in the mix.
That’s not a surprise to Tucson head coach Mark Lamb.
“I think the guys have really bought in to what we’re doing,” Lamb explained. “There have been a lot of changes to our lineup, a lot of stuff that’s been going on, a lot of people up and down, and I think we’ve really figured out how we have to play to be successful. That buy-in is huge. When you have that, you have a chance to win every game.”
The Roadrunners’ season has taken many turns since its season opening 5-3 loss to the San Diego Gulls on Oct. 14, including some unexpected ones. The team underwent a traumatic event on Nov. 19 when team captain Craig Cunningham, who scored the first goal in team history, collapsed on the ice just moments prior to the start of the Roadrunners’ game against the visiting Manitoba Moose.
As Cunningham lay motionless on the ice, it was apparent to everyone in attendance that a medical emergency was in progress. A team of firefighters, who happened to be present for a pregame ceremony, quickly administered emergency CPR. The Tucson captain was then rushed to a nearby hospital where his condition worsened.
The game was postponed, as were two ensuing home games against the Gulls, as players and team staff were given time to recover from the traumatic event.
Cunningham would remain in the hospital for a month as life-saving procedures were administered. As his condition eventually began to improve, teammates, and even opposing players, dropped in for visits.
Support via social media was strong from the Tucson fans as the story reached the national stage.
As teammates became closer due to the event, the event also seemed to bring the city of Tucson closer to the team. People now know who the Roadrunners are as fans embraced the new franchise to share in its battle to overcome tragedy.
It was a healing time for everyone.
“It was pretty emotional what happened,” Lamb explained. “It happened in front of everybody’s eyes, everybody saw it … It’s been a very emotional time for everybody.”
The Roadrunners have continued to win while playing through these adverse conditions.
“When things happen like this, you really see the character in the team,” Lamb said. “I knew this team had a lot of character, I knew it had a lot of leadership, and this just proves it.”
Back on top
Tucson fans were presented with an appropriately timed holiday present when the club reclaimed first place in the division standings in the final week of December while riding an explosive 6-1-1 run.
In their first game back following the Christmas break, the Roadrunners claimed a dramatic 5-4 shootout win at San Diego on Dec. 26. Tucson then won a key winner-take-all showdown for first place by defeating the Heat, 4-1,in Stockton on Dec. 28.
The back-to-back wins boosted the Roadrunners’ record to 15-6-3 and sole rights to the division lead.
In a game that saw five lead changes in regulation play, Tucson twice coughed up leads and twice battled back from deficits to force overtime against the Gulls. Center Chris Mueller proved a thorn in the side of his former team by sending the game into overtime on a power-play goal with 2:26 left in the third period. He then scored the shootout game-winner following a scoreless overtime period.
Mueller led the Roadrunners with two goals in the game. Tucson also received goals from left wing Michael Bunting and defenseman Zbynek Michalek.
The Roadrunners had to fend off some scary moments after a late penalty in regulation play lapsed over 37 seconds into the overtime period. It ranked among the most exciting games played this season at the Valley View Casino Center, home of the Gulls.
Mueller received third star of the game recognition with his three-point performance (two goals, one assist) in the game.
He termed it a “tough” game to win as both teams were shaking off lethargy after the holiday break. Tucson players woke up at 4 a.m. that morning to board a flight to California.
“In my experience, that’s a tough game to play,” Mueller said. “You don’t feel your best, you just try to find ways to find energy, and you could tell. We took some penalties because we were tired and San Diego’s got a great power play, so we got into some trouble that way, but I thought we did a good job getting the win.”
It was the first win in San Diego in three tries this season for Tucson. The teams have yet to meet on Arizona soil.
“You want to play well every game, but it’s especially a good feeling doing so coming to San Diego,” Mueller explained. “I loved it here. I was always welcomed. I have a lot of friends still on that team and in the San Diego area, but it’s good to get a couple of goals and a win, for sure.”
The shootout victory also continued a trend. It marked the sixth time in seven games that the Roadrunners had battled beyond 60 minutes. In 10 games this season that have gone beyond regulation, Tucson has claimed seven wins – five in overtime and two in shootouts.
The 14 points earned in those seven wins account for nearly half of the 33 total standings points earned by the team this season.
That’s a statistic that shouldn’t easily be down played.
“It’s nice to get those extra points because they sure add up,” Lamb explained. “This team finds a way to do it; they find a way to win, and that’s a great trait to have.”
Stockton had the opportunity to move back into first place with a win over the visiting Roadrunners but it was Tucson that seized the momentum in the high stakes contest by erasing a 1-0 first-period lead by scorching the Heat with four unanswered goals over the next two periods. The Roadrunners scored three power play goals on six man-up opportunities to catapult themselves to the victory.
Tucson swept all three star of the game awards – an impressive feat in a foreign building. Center Laurent Dauphin received first star honors with two goals, while right wing Christian Fischer received the nod for second star with one goal and two assists. Goaltender Marek Langhammer earned the third star award after making 35 saves on 36 shots.
Both of Dauphin’s goals came on the power play and Fischer also scored a power-play goal.
Lamb did not down play the importance of the win over the host Heat.
“It’s huge, and we talked about it,” the Tucson coach explained. “It’s something that we have to be proud of; that’s what you play for, you play to win, and it was a good matchup. You get in these games, and you want to come out on top. I tell you what, I liked a lot of the things the guys did. I liked how they’re coming together, how they’re sticking up for each other. That’s a real good hockey team we played – and we went toe-to-toe with them.”
In a demonstration of just how fluid the Pacific Division standings have become, the Roadrunners arrived back in Tucson for back-to-back games against the cellar-dwelling San Antonio Rampage to close out the calendar year. In a match-up of first place and last place teams, the Rampage swept both contests – 5-2 and 4-2 – to drop the Roadrunners from first to third in the division standings.
The division standings are based on points-percentage – points earned versus possible points. Ontario leads the division with a .696 winning percentage, followed by the San Jose Barracuda (.654), Tucson (.635), Stockton (.621), San Diego (.537), Texas Stars (.533), San Antonio (.500) and Bakersfield Condors (.482).
The positive spin is that the Roadrunners have the entire second half of the season to make up ground.
The top four teams in the division qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.
“The team never quits,” Lamb emphasized. “We come back in games. We show a lot of character. We kind of do it the hard way that gives coaches heart attacks the way we’re winning. But you don’t critique wins. It’s all about wins and losses and we’re doing that right now. There’s areas we have to clean up, of course.”
Kyle Wood and Fischer, despite their rookie status, have been key contributors to the Roadrunners’ success in the team’s inaugural season. Wood leads Tucson in team scoring with 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 26 games, while Fischer ranks third in team scoring with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 24 games.
Fischer recently had an 12-game points streak snapped in which he tallied 15 points on eight goals and seven assists.
Wood and Fischer combined for four points (two assists each) in the Dec. 26 win in San Diego and racked up five points (one goal, four assists) between them in the Dec. 28 win in Stockton.
Fischer received second star billing in the win over the Heat with one goal and two assists.
The two rookies offer an exciting a glimpse into the future for Coyotes fans.
A third round selection by Colorado Avalanche in 2014 NHL Draft (84th overall) out of the North Bay Battalion in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the 6-foot-5, 223- pound Wood ranks second among rookie scorers in the division (first in assists).
The 20-year-old native of Waterloo, Ont., earned recognition as the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for October after tallying eight points (two goals, six assists) in five games.
Wood was a scoring machine during his four seasons with the Battalion. He collected 27 goals and 93 points in 165 games, including 24 goals and 79 points in 116 games in his final two seasons with the Battalion.
The burly defenseman appeared in two games for the Springfield Falcons in 2015-16 before joining Tucson full time this season.
“The guys have been awesome and the coaches have been great,” Wood explained about competing in his first professional season. “The coaches are letting me have some ice time. It’s just the defensive side of the game that needs to improve. I’ve been working on my skating and stuff like that. I think things have been going well so far.”
Wood has produced on the offensive side from the beginning. He collected a goal and assist in the team’s first game this season. He assisted on the franchise’s first goal, scoring by Cunningham, and scored his first professional goal later in the game.
He said his top attributes are his shot and his offensive skill set.
“I like to make nice plays,” he said. “I know what to do with the puck when I get it. I just want to help out the team any way I can.”
Lamb is impressed by Wood’s development as a player.
“He’s had an excellent season,” the Tucson coach explained. “He’s our leading scorer. He’s a rookie. He’s learning every day. He’s just having a heck of a year so far.”
Fischer, 19, is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound native of Wayne, Ill. The Coyotes selected him in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft (32nd overall). He has proved he can score at every level he has played.
Fischer spent time in the United States National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., He racked up 26 goals and 53 points in 59 games while playing for the USA Under-17 and U-18 teams. He won gold medals for Team USA at the 2014 World Hockey Challenge (U17 team) and the 2015 World Junior Championships (U18 team).
Following his stay in Ann Arbor, Fischer spent one very productive season with the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL. While in Windsor, he tallied 90 points (40 goals, 50 assists) in 66 games. He appeared in six games with Springfield last season, collecting two goals and three points.
He’s been on fire lately with the Roadrunners.
“”I’m a power forward, so I think my strength and size are the biggest things I have,” Fischer 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.”
He said it has taken time to adapt to playing in the AHL.
“You’ve got to adapt to the speed,” he said. “You’re playing against men. That’s a hard thing, too. It’s pretty hard to battle in front of the net against guys who have been in the league for 10 years. You’ve got to adapt, learn each game and get better.”
Given their already-successful start, what do the Roadrunners need to do over the balance of the season to remain successful?
“Our biggest thing is probably puck management,” Fischer acknowledged. “It’s happened about eight or nine times this season when we’ve given up a goal late in the third period. Once we get that puck management down and learn how to protect a lead, I think we’ll have a lot more success.”
As for the team’s uncanny ability to win beyond regulation?
“We’re a battling team – we like to battle all the time,” Wood said. “We never say die. We’ve come back in a lot of games this year so far. We’ve got these overtime and shootout wins and that’s helping out the record right now.”
“I think we have a lot of skilled guys,” Fischer explained. “Three-on-three is obviously a lot of puck management, a lot of skill. The shootout is obviously the same sort of thing, a lot of skill, knowing the goalie. I think we have a lot of skilled guys, so when it comes to those terms, it’s pretty easy for us to just play.”
Obviously, there has to be a bit of culture shock for the both rookies playing their first pro seasons in Arizona after growing up in the snow belt. Both players said they’ve enjoyed the shift to the desert.
“It’s been awesome,” Wood chimed. “We’re staying in a nice place. The weather’s been great. I played in North Bay the last three years. That was different. You just got to soak it up, play some golf or be by the pool. It’s a different experience. I like it so far.”
“It’s been great,” Fischer added. “Tucson is a great place to live. We’re having a lot of success. It’s always easy to come to the rink when you’re having that much success.”
Making the grade
A half-dozen players have suited up both for the both Roadrunners and Coyotes this season.
Dauphin, defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and left wing Brendan Perlini have spent the most time with the parent NHL club. DeAngelo has appeared in 20 games with the Coyotes, recording one goal and seven assists, while Dauphin has also appeared in 20 games, collecting two goals and three points.
Perlini has appeared in 12 games with the Coyotes. He’s scored three goals and tallied four points for the parent club. Prior to his most recent call-up, he earned honors as the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for November. During the month, Perlini notched points in seven consecutive games from Nov. 4 to Nov. 27, including a six-game goal-scoring streak.
In 16 games with Tucson this season, Perlini, 20, has collected 11 goals and 16 points. He was selected as the 12th overall pick by Arizona in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
Center Tyler Gaudet has appeared in four games with the Coyotes and goaltender Justin Peters has played in three NHL games this season.
Defenseman Kevin Connauton, sent down on a recent loan, tallied a goal and three points with the Roadrunners while recording an assist in nine games with the Coyotes.
Defenseman Jamie McBain has also played for both the Coyotes and Roadrunners this season.
Teddy Bear Toss
The Roadrunners held their inaugural Teddy Bear Toss on Dec. 9 against the Reign and collected more than 4,000 stuffed animals that were donated to Aviva Children’s Services, an organization that helps Tucson children in need.
The game, which the Roadrunners won 5-4 on a goal by Fischer with 26 seconds gone in the overtime period, attracted 5,891 fans. Michalek scored the goal that sent the teddy bears flying from the stands 4:45 into the opening period.
By the numbers
Mueller ranks second in team scoring with 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists).
Fischer is tied with Perlini for the team lead with 11 goals.
Wood and Perlini are tied for the team lead with six power play goals.
Gaudet leads the team with two shorthanded goals.
McBain ranks fourth in team scoring (behind Wood, Mueller and Fischer) with 18 points (three goals, 15 assists). He’s followed on the score sheet by Perlini (11 goals, five assists) and Bunting (seven goals, six assists).
Cunningham, despite playing in his 11 games this season, continues to rank seventh in team scoring with 13 points (four goals, nine assists). Two goals came in the team’s Oct. 14 season opener in San Diego.
Adin Hill (2.97 goals-against average, .910 save percentage) leads Tucson with eight goaltending wins; Langhammer (2.96 GAA, .915 save percentage) has picked up four wins between the pipes for the Roadrunners, while Peters (4.19 GAA, .859 save percentage) has posted three wins.
Bunting had a five-game points streak good for six points (five goals, one assist) from Oct. 30-Nov. 11.
Tucson ranks second in the division in power play percentage (25 percent), but fifth in the division on the penalty kill (82.1 percent)
Tucson is averaging 3,898 fans to home games this season.
Makeup dates have been set for the two games originally scheduled Nov. 22 and Nov. 23 against San Diego but postponed in the wake of the Cunningham tragedy. The game originally scheduled Nov. 22 will now be played on Jan. 25, while the game originally scheduled Nov. 23 will now be played on Feb. 28. Tickets purchased for both games will be honored on the rescheduled dates.
The make-up date for the Nov. 19 game against Manitoba is Jan. 10.
The addition of the games against San Diego means the Roadrunners and Gulls will square off in a three-game series Jan. 25, 27-28.
Tucson resumes play in the 2017 calendar year on Jan. 6 in Stockton, followed by a Jan. 7 road game in San Jose.
The rescheduled game against the Moose faces off a five-game homestand during which the Roadrunners will also face Texas and Ontario twice each.
Tucson embarks on a coast-to-coast trip to Charlotte, N. C., to take on the Checkers Jan. 21-22 before returning to Arizona to face the Gulls.
The Roadrunners will play the Checkers Feb. 3-4 at the Gila Rend Arena, the Coyotes’ home ice.
It is now known that Cunningham suffered a heart attack during final preparations for that Nov. 19 game against the Moose.
But why the otherwise healthy 26-year-old Tucson captain collapsed remains a mystery to doctors.
Fortunately, things came together in the right order – and in expedient fashion – to save Cunningham’s life.
Cunningham, who was in the midst of a five-game point streak at the time of the injury, was lucky that local firefighters were present and were in position to promptly administer emergency CPR.
Cunningham was transported to Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital where he underwent further lifesaving procedures. Still in critical condition and his heart bruised by compression techniques, Cunningham was then transported to Banner-University Medical Center Tucson where he received advanced life-saving therapy using ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a specialized external heart-lung procedure for patients who are unable to sustain cardiac and respiratory support.
The ECMO procedure had only been performed on two patients before Cunningham and was considered radical. But with very little options available, Cunningham’s mother Heather gave the OK.
The application of extraordinary measures did indeed save Cunningham’s life. After recovering to the point of being able to leave his hospital room, he gathered together with his mother and the doctors who saved his life for a press conference Dec. 21 at Banner.
Cunningham’s first order of business was to thank those who have supported his recovery, including staff at both hospitals, emergency personnel at the arena, team staff, teammates and fans.
“I want to thank everyone, from the fire department to our trainers to the doctors at St. Mary’s, the doctors at Banner, to every single nurse that has helped me so far,” he said. “If I could actually use some names; from St. Mary’s, Dr. George and Dr. Reza, and from Banner Hospital, Dr. Khalpey, Dr. Hughes, and Dr. Yankis, without those five people, our trainer Deven, and the fire department, I don’t think I’d be here today, so thank you.”
He acknowledged the wide support from the hockey community as being instrumental in the recovery process.
“It feels good, any time you can get some extra support and some extra help from other people, it makes a big difference,” he explained. “It’s nice to know that people are reaching out to try and help you through tough times.
Tucson general manager Doug Soetaert was present at the press conference and reiterated much of what Cunningham told the media.
“On behalf of the Arizona Coyotes and the Tucson Roadrunners organization, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody involved in this incident that occurred,” Soetaert explained. “We’re in the hockey industry, it’s about teamwork and commitment, and working hard to achieve a goal.
“I can tell you being a little bit on the inside here from day one, I’ve never seen anything like this in regard to the teamwork the doctors, the two hospitals to save this young man’s life. It’s been an incredible venture.”
Heather Cunningham, who was present at the Nov. 19 game and witnessed her son’s collapse on the ice, also spoke at the press conference. She was very emotional in delivering her words. The younger Cunningham had to put his hand on her shoulder several times to console her.
“I don’t think I will ever find the words to express how grateful I really am,” she told the media. “Craig would not be here with us today if these people had not gone that extra mile in every aspect of this situation. The only reason he survived the original incident was the continued refusal to give up in a seemingly hopeless situation. On behalf of the trainers, the emergency responders, the doctors and nurses, the rest of the recovery has followed the same story.
“The doctors and nurses have monitored him meticulously and caught all incoming problems in their early stages. They have made difficult decisions without hesitating, and have acted effectively under extreme pressure when they were caught between a rock and a hard place. They have run out of options, and had to create new options by pushing the boundaries of things that they have tried and implemented before.
“Most of all, they have refused to give up in spite of hopelessness, they have given Craig a chance to recover, and that continues to exceed anything that could have ever been expected. These people are nothing short of a gift to mankind, and I will remember the gift that they have given me every time I look at my son.”
Cunningham said it meant a lot obviously for his mother to be by his side: “She was down here watching me when it happened, so she’s been here since day one,” he said. “My whole life, she’s been the backbone of our whole family, and nothing’s changed now, she’s still there for me every day, and I couldn’t be any more thankful.”
Medical staff from both hospitals spoke about the technical aspects of the life-saving procedures performed on Cunningham, originally a fourth-round pick (97th overall) of the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL Draft.
They remained amazed at his recovery.
Cunningham said his pro hockey career is likely over but he hasn’t ruled out a return to hockey at some level or form.
“We’ll see when I get back from rehab how it goes,” he told reporters at the press conference. “As of right now, at the level that I was playing at, I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to playing pro, but I don’t kn ow anything can happen.”
Cunningham was scheduled to be released before Christmas to a rehabilitation center after a month-long stay in the hospital. However, complications from a lingering infection kept him in the hospital.
On Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, fearful that the infection would further complicate Cunningham’s recovery, doctors amputated part of his left leg.
Despite the loss of part of the leg, Cunningham remained positive, just grateful that he had defied death.
“I’m lucky I’m not 10 feet under,” he said.
The full press conference can be found on YouTube.
Both the Coyotes and Roadrunners encourage fans to post photos, well wishes and thoughts using the hashtag #CunnyCan.
Story and photos/Phillip Brents