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Roadrunners to honor captain Cunningham on March 25

 

Cunningham_Tucson

The Tucson Roadrunners will host “Cunny Did Night” honoring team captain Craig Cunningham on Saturday, March 25, when the American Hockey League (AHL) club entertains the visiting San Jose Barracuda.

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The event will spotlight Cunningham and the doctors who saved his life after Cunningham suffered an on-ice medical emergency prior to a game at the Tucson Convention Center last November.

Cunningham will participate in a pregame puck drop with the two doctors who helped save his life: Dr. George Haloftis of Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital – Tucson and Dr. Zain Khalpey of Banner – University Medical Center Tucson.

AHL president and CEO David Andrews will also be on hand for the pregame festivities.

Tucson head coach Mark Lamb said the pregame event is obviously special to the team.

“It means a lot considering what he’s been through,” Lamb explained. “He’s our team captain. He’s our leader in all aspects on and off the ice. We’re happy about the recovery he’s made. He’s not only an inspiration to us but the whole hockey world.”

Cunningham, 26, now has a new lease on life following the novel lifesaving techniques administered shortly after he suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the ice at Tucson Arena prior to the face-off in a Nov. 19 game against the Manitoba Moose.

However, his miraculous return to the living came with a price: his pro hockey playing career is now over following a partial amputation of his left leg due to an infection that developed during the recovery phase.

Cunningham is simply grateful to be alive.

A series of events that fell into the right order kept him from near certain death. He initially survived 83 minutes of CPR after undergoing acute cardiac arrest.

He was first transported to St. Mary’s Hospital where the emergency department team quickly determined he need to be transferred to Banner where he could receive advanced life-saving therapy using ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation).

It was the ECMO machine that ultimately saved Cunningham’s life.

The machine works as a pump that circulates blood through a circuit of tubing supporting heart function and through an “oxygenator” that functions as an artificial lung. It is used to help patients of all ages with life-threatening conditions that impair heart and/or lung function. Most patients who need ECMO are almost certain to die without this level of support, according to administrators at Banner.

Cunningham’s condition continued to worsen upon his arrival at Banner. However, a new procedure developed by Khapley, using a left ventricular assist device, allowed Cunningham’s heart to recover from the trauma.

In Cunningham’s case, the new procedure was used to decompress his enlarged heart. It had only been used three times previously.

Doctors said the quick action of bystanders who performed effective CPR, the actions of St. Mary’s staff and the advanced technology and care provided at Tucson’s academic medical center led to a truly remarkable recovery.

Among the first on the scene was a group of firefighters who were at the arena to play the national anthem with bagpipes. Instead of filling the arena with joyful sounds, they helped perform emergency CPR on Cunningham.

The Tucson Fire Pipes and Drums honor guard has since made Cunningham an honorary member of its corps.

Cunningham’s heroic battle quickly caught the attention of the hockey world. He received stacks of letters and visits from team members and family members while in the hospital. A special hash tag was set up for social media posts and it became a rallying cry: #CunnyCan.

Cunningham has chosen to go forward, rather than backward, following the amputation procedure. He has since visited teammates in the locker room prior to games, which has served as a prime motivation tool for the team.

He was named captain for a reason.

“When you walk into the rink, you’ve got one job and one job only, and that’s what you should focus on,” he said during an interview in training camp.

While his playing career my be over, Cunningham is reluctant to leave behind the hockey world that he’s been a part of for 14 years. He said he would like to remain connected to the hockey, either in a management capacity or possibly as a scout.

The hockey world would be honored to have him, of course.

Cunningham’s pro career may have been cut short but he did accomplish what many have never achieved: a chance to play in the National Hockey League.

A fourth round draft pick (97th overall) in 2010 by the Boston Bruins, Cunningham chalked up a total of 63 games in the NHL, including 34 games during parts of two seasons with the Bruins and 29 games during parts of two season with the Arizona Coyotes, the Roadrunners’ NHL parent club.

His NHL totals read three goals and eight points. He also collected 101 goals and 203 points in 319 games in the NHL.

In 11 games with the Roadrunners at the time of his injury, he had tallied four goals and 13 points.

Fans are encouraged to use the hash tag #CunnyDid to share thoughts, photographs and experiences, and become a part of this special event.

Game time is 7:05 p.m. Fans are encouraged to be in their seats by 6:50 p.m. for the special puck drop ceremony.

Stretch drive

The Roadrunners are currently engaged in a mad dash along with as many as four other teams to secure the final playoff berth in the AHL’s Pacific Division.

The top four teams in the division qualify for the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs. The Barracuda (38-14-2-4, .707 winning percentage), San Diego Gulls (38-15-3-2, .698 winning percentage) and Ontario Reign (30-18-10-0, .603 winning percentage) all enjoy a comfortable separation from the bottom five teams in the division.

Currently, the Bakersfield Condors (28-23-5-1, .544 winning percentage) hold onto the final playoff berth in the division. The Condors are three standings points ahead of the fifth place Stockton Heat (27-25-4-1, .518 winning percentage), .052 percentage points ahead of the sixth place Texas Stars (29-30-1-4, .492 winning percentage) and seven standings points ahead of the Roadrunners (24-27-7-0, .474 winning percentage).

The San Antonio Rampage (25-32-5-2, .445 winning percentage) currently brings up the rear in the division.

The Roadrunners have had plenty of opportunities in recent games to catch the Condors.

Tucson missed a great opportunity to move into playoff position after dropping a pair of home ice contests against the Condors on March 17-18. Bakersfield won the opener by a score of 4-0 and captured the second game by a score of 4-3.

The Arizona team then embarked on a two-game road trip to Texas March 21-22 where it managed to pick up just one standing point in losses to San Antonio (4-2 on March 21) and the Texas Stars (4-3 in overtime on March 22).

The two losses in the Lone Star State dropped Tucson to 0-4-1 in its last five games and 2-7-1 in its last 10 games.

It’s hard to think that the Roadrunners were in first place in the division in the last week of December.

Instead, a 10-21-4 downturn since Dec. 26 has put the team within sight of the cellar. Tucson enters Cunny Did Night just .029 percentage points out of last place in the division.

Making the playoffs will be a challenge.

Tucson has four games remaining on its regular schedule against front-running San Jose, which has the top points-percentage in the league, two games against second place San Diego, which has the second-best points-percentage in the league, and a season-ending five-game road trip that includes two games in Canada against the Manitoba Moose.

Tucson recently completed a consecutive 12-game run against San Jose, San Diego and Ontario – the top three teams in the division – with a 3-8-1 record. The Roadrunners are 0-3-1 in games against San Jose and 2-8-0 in games against San Diego.

But there’s still hope for a turnaround. The Barracuda wrapped up the league’s 16th and final playoff berth last season in the league’s final regular season game.

A precedent has thus been set.

The Roadrunners face off a critical five-game home stand on March 25. Tucson’s home ice record this season is 15-11-3 (.569 winning percentage) but has been tempered by a six-game losing streak.

Key roadblocks to hurdle: The Roadrunners remain the lowest scoring team in the AHL (153 goals) and have recorded just nine road wins.

Both of those areas need to improve if the Arizona squad is to claim a playoff berth.

“Scoring has been a thorn in our side all year,” Lamb conceded. “If you don’t score a goal, you’re not going to win a hockey game.”

The Roadrunners have dropped 12 one-goal games this season while winning 17 one-goal games. In two-goal games, however, the team is just 1-7-0-0.

Tucson’s road record slid to 9-16-4-0 following the March 22 OT loss to the Stars. Of the Arizona team’s final 10 regular season games, five are on the road.

Lamb said it’s obvious that something needs to change in that department as well. “We have to win on the road, there’s no doubt about it, it’s pretty simple math when you get it all down in front of you,” he said.

Regular-season play ends April 15.

NHL pipeline

Still, the Roadrunners have fulfilled their primary duty as an AHL affiliate, which is to develop talent for the team’s parent club in the NHL, the Arizona Coyotes.

Rookie forward Christian Fischer was the latest player called up to the big club on March 21. A second-round draft pick by the Coyotes in 2015, Fischer leads the team in goals scored with 19 and ranks second on Tucson with 43 points in 51 games. The 19-year-old native of Wayne, Ill., has tallied three goals in four games with the Coyotes.

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Defenseman Zbynek Michalek and forward Laurent Dauphin were both called up on March 19. Michalek, 34, has registered 14 points in 43 games with Tucson this season while collecting 178 points in 781 career NHL games and 140 points in 609 career games with the Coyotes.

Daphin, 21, has recorded 23 points in 33 games with the Roadrunners and three points in 24 games with the Coyotes this season.

The Roadrunners have had a sizable part of their roster gain playing time to the NHL this season.

“I think we’ve done a lot of good things — a lot of the young guys got a lot of ice time, they’ve improved a lot in all areas,” Lamb assessed.

The Tucson coach said the team’s current playoff drive is a key focus for his troops.

“These are real games and very important games, and it’s a good experience for everybody,” he said.

However, Lamb said that the season will be evaluated as a whole, not just the team’s final month of the season, and whether the team actually makes the playoffs.

“It’s been a full year of ups and downs,” Lamb explained. “There are a lot of good teams in this league. It comes down to how you play.”

Golden gloves

The AHL’s Pacific Division has become home to some of the league’s top goaltending talent this season, Tucson’s Adin Hill included.

San Jose’s Troy Grosenick has posted a league-leading 26 wins and nine shutouts, while his 2.08 goals-against average and .928 save percentage both rank second among AHL netminders. He earned the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month award for February after going 9-0 with a 1.88 GAA and .933 save percentage. He backstopped his team to 12 wins during its recent franchise-record 14-game winning streak.

San Diego’s tandem of Dustin Tokarski and Kevin Boyle has helped launch the Gulls to within one point of the division lead, while Ontario’s Jack Campbell started 36 consecutive games, winning 22 of them.

A third-round selection (76th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Coyotes, the 20-year-old Hill, a native of Calgary, has posted a 14-12-6 record with a 3.00 GAA, one shutout and .912 save percentage.

Lamb calls Hill’s rookie season “excellent.”

“He’s won us a lot of games this year,” the Tucson coach explained. “He’s improved a lot, as have others on the team. He’s probably the most important part of our team.”

If Hill had received more offensive support from his teammates, it’s exciting to think what impact the Roadrunners might have had on the division standings.

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Tight games have become a regular feature in the closing month of the season for just about everybody in the division. Hill has been involved in a number of them.

Hill’s consistency rewarded him with a 2-1 victory on March 4 as Tucson picked up its first ever win at Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena. Hill made 29 saves on 30 shots as the Roadrunners snapped a five-game losing streak. Michalek and Mitch Moroz scored goals for Tucson.

On the flip side, the six-foot-four, 190-pound Hill stopped 33 of the 35 shots he faced in a 2-1 loss in San Diego on March 10. Both goals he allowed came in a 22-second span midway through the first period while the visitors were serving consecutive penalties. Chris Mueller scored the lone Tucson goal with 1:10 remaining in the second period to halve the deficit.

Hill came up big with 17 saves in the final period, but the Roadrunners were unable to mount a comeback against Boyle (39 saves on 40 shots) despite outshooting the host team 40-35.

“It’s fun, every game counts,” Hill explained about being thrust into this year’s playoff race. “Every game is a playoff game before the playoffs. You just have to come in with that intensity that it’s do-or-die every night.”

A lot of motivation remains for the Roadrunners entering the final three weeks of regular season play.

“It’s really exciting,” Fischer said. “Every point counts, so whenever points are up for grabs, we need to take advantage of it.

“These games (right now) are massive. This is the toughest stretch of the year here.”

Trading places

The Roadrunners have undergone a face lift during the second half of the season by adding a half dozen new players to their lineup.

Left wing Joe Whitney has combined for 13 goals and 33 points in 64 games between Tucson and San Antonio while center Grayson Downing has collected 25 points in 56 games between Tucson and Iowa.

Right wing Jeremy Morin has compiled 11 goals and 24 points in 53 games between Tucson and Syracuse while defenseman David Musil has racked up 16 points in 54 games between Tucson and Bakersfield.

Right wing Branden Troock has collected eight points in 27 games between Tucson and Texas while Moroz, a left wing, has amassed seven points in 33 games between Tucson and Bakersfield.

Goaltender Justin Peters, who played in the Roadrunners’ inaugural game this season, was traded to Texas on Feb. 1. He came back to haunt his old team by recording two wins against the Arizona squad.

By the numbers

Mueller, a center, leads Tucson is season scoring with 53 points on 13 goals and 40 assists in 58 games. He collected 20 goals and 57 points last season to share the scoring lead in San Diego.

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A pair of rookie sensations follow Mueller on the Roadrunners score sheet: Fischer with 43 points (19 goals, 24 assists) in 51 games and defenseman Kyle Wood with 40 points (13 goals, 27 assists) in 58 games.

Both players represented the Roadrunners at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic where Wood clocked 99.3 mph to win the hardest shot competition.

At six-feet, five inches tall and weighing 223 pounds, Wood (a third-round pick in the 2014 draft by the Colorado Avalanche) may be the Roadrunners’ most exciting player on the ice. He is usually the largest player out there and opposing players tend to bounce off his body as he sweeps the area clear next to the Tucson net in a game of human pinball.

Cunningham photo/tusconroadrunners.com; additional photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents