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Roadrunners top off second AHL season with Pacific Division title

 

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Regardless of whatever happens in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs, the Tucson Roadrunners have made a huge statement in their second year of existence in the American Hockey League (AHL).

Not only did the Roadrunners, the top developmental affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes of the NHL, finish on top of the AHL’s eight-team Pacific Division during the 2017-18 season but they also skated to the best record among the AHL’s 15 Western Conference teams.

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Tucson finished with a remarkable record of 42 wins, 20 losses, five overtime losses and one shootout loss. The team’s .662 winning percentage ranked third overall among the league’s 30 teams – second only to the North Division champion Toronto Marlies (.737 winning percentage) and the Atlantic Division champion Lehigh Valley Phantoms (.684 winning percentage).

The team’s success came under new head coach Mike Van Ryn, who took over a team that had faded badly in the second half of its inaugural 2016-17 season to miss the playoffs.

“The goal at the start of the season was to get a taste of the playoffs,” Van Ryn explained. “It was, ‘Let’s see if we can get this young group into the playoffs.’ We’ve picked up some guys who have made us a little bit older. But for five-sixths of the year, or however you want to look at it, we were a real young group. Now it seems to be how long we can keep that taste of the playoffs going.”

Instead of suffering a late season collapse, as happened last year, the reverse happened this season. The Roadrunners were strengthened thanks to a series of roster moves facilitated by the parent Coyotes prior to the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline.

Among the acquisitions were forward Carter Camper and defenseman Trevor Murphy. Camper, coming over from the Cleveland Monsters, finished as the team’s leading scorer with 61 points (16 goals, 45 assists) in 68 games (including three goals and 19 points in 15 games with the Roadrunners) while Murphy contributed nine points in 11 games with Tucson after arriving from Milwaukee where he had collected 26 points in 48 games.

The infusion of additional talent into a team already stocked with promising young players – highlighted by first-round draft picks Dylan Strome, Nick Merkley and Lawson Crouse, defenseman Kyle Capobianco and goaltenders Adin Hill and Hunter Miska – created much-needed depth for the second-year franchise.

Stomre, Merkley and Capobianco all represented Tucson at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic in Utica, N.Y.

But they weren’t the only ones who stepped up their game.

“On an individual basis, pretty much everybody has taken some good strides,” Van Ryn noted. “Some guys have doubled their output from last year. Some guys have figured out who they are and how they have to play. The good thing is that we’ve been able to keep up momentum. I don’t think we’ve had too many lulls in the season.

“We’ve learned to play pretty consistent hockey, which is tough at this level. Some nights are off, but for the most part, we’re in most games. We’re there to battle for two points. I think that says a lot for a team in the American Hockey League.”

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Van Ryn admitted team building contributed a large amount to the success of this group.

“Our leadership has done a great job building a great room,” the Tucson bench boss said. “They’ve been great with our young guys bringing them along and instilling confidence in them, and showing them how to be pros. The young guys have followed. They push themselves every day and look to get better. They do all their video and do all the extra work on the ice. It’s made for a fun year to coach a group that wants to get better and tries to do everything in their power to get better.”

Statistically, Tucson was not a behemoth in the Pacific Division despite finishing on top of it. The Roadrunners did not score the most goals, though they did give up the fewest goals. They ranked near the bottom of the 30-team league in power play efficiency (18.6 percent) and fared only slightly better in penalty killing (81.8 percent).

Six teams finished ahead of them in the division in total penalty minutes.

But what the Arizona team did was find ways to win. Tucson finished March and April 13-3-2-0, including a 9-2-2-0 run in March that helped separate them from their nearest challengers.

The Roadrunners posted a 32-17-2-1 record (.644 winning percentage) against the seven other Pacific Division teams and a 10-3-3-0 record (.719 winning percentage) against the four teams it faced from the Central Division in inter-dvisional play this season.

Other statistics are more relevant. Tucson recorded a 25-9-2-1 record (.716 winning percentage) when scoring the first goal in a game and a 23-1-1-0 record (.940 winning percentage) when leading after two periods.

If there was one nagging statistic over the course of the season, it was the disparity between home and road records. The Roadrunners posted a phenomenal road record of 24-7-2-1 (.750 winning percentage) while logging a someone mediocre 18-13-3-0 showing (.574 winning percentage) on home ice.

The road record stood as the second best in the league; the home record was 15th best.

“I’m not too sure exactly one is better than the other,” Van Ryn mused. “The preparation is the same way. The practices leading into the games are pretty similar. Our guys like being around each other. I don’t know if them having dinner with each other or staying in the same hotel together has something to do with it.”

Maybe it does. It’s called team chemistry.

Honor roll

A pair of Roadrunners earned season-ending awards from the AHL. Strome received inclusion on the AHL’s All-Rookie Team while defenseman Dakota Mermis earned honors as Tucson’s individual team honoree for the AHL’s IOC/American Specialty Man of the Year Award.

Strome tallied 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 50 regular season games to rank fourth in the league among rookie scorers but led the first-year group with 1.06 points per game. He tallied nine power play goals to rank second on the team.

The 21-year-old forward from Mississauga, Ont., Canada, also appeared in 21 games with the Coyotes this season, chipping in with four goals and nine points.

Strome had a plus-8 plus-minus rating with Tucson and a plus-4 plus-minus rating with Arizona.

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He called it an honor to be included on the AHL All-Rookie Team – a feat accomplished by his older brother Ryan (a first-round selection by the New York Islanders in the 2011 draft and now playing for the Edmonton Oilers) during the 2013-14 season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

“It’s pretty cool,” the younger Strome said. “Obviously, it’s an accomplishment. My older brother was on it. It’s nice to be recognized for the same thing.”

Dylan Strome has appeared in 28 NHL games with four goals and 10 points over the past two seasons. He scored three goals during his latest call-up that covered the final month of the NHL regular season when the Coyotes turned in one of the league’s top records (17-12-2-1 in March and April).

“It was good,” Strome said of his time spent in the NHL at the tail end of this season. “The team was playing a lot better. It was a lot more fun winning out there. The guys were a lot more positive. It was a lot more fun because the team was winning. It makes it a lot easier to play in and have some fun.”

Of course, he’s hoping to help lead the Coyotes to better fortunes next season as a regular contributor.

“It’s been good so far, I’m only in my first year — hopefully time will tell,” he said in regard of receiving a full-time promotion.” I was happy with my last call-up and how I played. I hope we can have a long playoff run and hopefully I can be an NHLer the rest of my career.”

In the meantime, he’s still a Roadrunner. What has contributed to the team’s the big turnaround in the win-loss column this season?

“Competing and not giving up,” he said. “We’ve been a team known to have some comebacks, get wins where maybe we didn’t deserve them. It’s a characteristic of a good team to get wins when maybe you don’t deserve them.

“It’s been good (but) we’ve got a lot of work left in the playoffs, obviously. We’re not going to be satisfied if we don’t go very far. We’re excited but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The AHL Man of the Year award is named in honor of Yanick Dupre, a former AHL All-Star with the Hershey Bears who died in 1997 at the age of 24 following a 16-month battle with leukemia. It is presented to an AHL player for his outstanding contributions to his local community and charitable organizations.

Each of the 30 teams in the league nominates one player for the league-wide award. Mermis, a 24-year-old native of Alton, Ill., received the honor for Tucson.

Mermis collected two goals and 19 points in 59 regular season games. But his value to the team went beyond just the scoring ledger.

A second-year player on the team, he is known for his quality character toward fans.

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“It was a huge honor,” Mermis said. “There were a lot of guys one the team who could have been recognized.”

An active volunteer for fan events, community appearances and displaying a kind demeanor with season ticket holders, Mermis embodied all the attributes of an exemplary player for the franchise, noted team captain Andrew Campbell.

“The big thing for me is the meet and greet events, especially the kids,” Mermis said. “My parents stressed the importance to show interest in other people’s lives, to help them any way I can.

“The people in Tucson are very positive. They want to learn about hockey. They’re very hard-working, gracious people.”

Mermis continues to have aspirations of becoming a NHL regular. He appeared in nine games with the Coyotes this season.

“It’s that great stage you dreamed about as a kid,” Mermis said. “It was a great experience – a great hockey experience.”

Chicago Wolves defenseman Scooter Vaughan, a native of Placentia, Calif., earned the distinction as the league-wide AHL IOC/Specialty Man of the Year award-winner for the 2017-18 season.

Young guns

The Roadrunners carried 12 rookies on their roster this season. Nine players on the team racked up 30 or more points this season.

Following Camper and Strome on the team scoring chart were right wing Mike Sislo with 47 points (23 goals, 24 assists) in 68 games, left wing Michael Bunting with 43 points (23 goals, 20 assists) in 67 games, Merkley with 39 points (18 goals, 21 assists) in 38 games and Mario Kempe (18 goals, 19 assists) with 37 points in 47 games.

Crouse, a first-round pick (11th overall) by the Florida Panthers in 2015, collected 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 56 games with Tucson. Capobianco, a third-round pick from the Coyotes’ potent draft class of 2015, proved an offensive boon on defense with 30 points (two goals, 28 assists) in 49 games.

Kempe spent 18 games with the Coyotes in 2017-18. Crouse played in 11 games with the Coyotes this season after appearing in 72 games with the parent club in 2016-17.

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Bunting, a fourth round by the Coyotes in 2014, and Silso tied for the team lead with 23 goals.

Miska, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, appeared in 36 games for Tucson this season with a 22-9-0 record, 2.63 GAA, one shutout and a .901 save percentage. He ranked second among league rookies in wins and fifth overall in goaltending average.

Final countdown

A regular season highlight for the Roadrunners had to be their 3-0 win over the defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins on April 6. Crouse, Ryan MacInnes and Tye McGinn each scored goals in support of Hill’s 26-save shutout.

Tucson closed out regular season play with a three-game series against San Diego. The three games would determine the winner of the inaugural Border Trophy between the teams but also produce several milestones for the Roadrunners.

Tucson defeated the Gulls, 4-0, April 11 at the Valley View Casino Center to officially clinch the regular season Pacific Division title (John D. Chick Trophy). Hill earned first star of the game award with 36 saves while Crouse (two goals, one assist) and Murphy (one goal, two assists) each contributed three points.

The remaining two games in the series moved to Tucson Arena, the Roadrunners’ nest. Tucson officially wrapped up rights to the top Western Conference record by recording a 3-2 victory on a goal by Kempe (his second of the game) with 3:10 left in the third period to snap a 2-2 deadlock. Hill was again between the pipes to record the win.

With little to play for in its final regular season game, Tucson played the spoiler role. The Gulls had entered the three-game series needing just one standings point to secure the final Calder Cup playoff berth. However, three regulation losses to the Roadrunners would keep them out of postseason play.

A very determined San Diego team rallied from an initial 3-0 deficit to make it a 3-2 contest with 15 minutes remaining in the third period. The Gulls hit the crossbar before Trevor Cheek gave the hosts some breathing room with a goal at 11:16 to pad their lead to 4-2.

But the visitors came back less than two minutes later as team scoring leader Kalle Kossila netted his single season club-record 21st goal of the season to trim the Roadrunners lead to 4-3. San Diego only needed to extend the game to overtime to qualify for the playoffs.

But the closing minutes of the game belonged to Tucson. Scottsdale native Zac Larraza made it a 5-3 game after snapping off a shot that beat San Diego netminder Reto Berra at the far post at 16:38. Cheek then scored into an empty net with 59 seconds to play to record his second goal of the contest and ice a 6-3 win for the Roadrunners in front of a near capacity crowd of 6,092 fans.

Larraza and Bunting each finished with one goal and one assist while Crouse and McGinn each scored goals. Murphy and rookie Jordan Gross each recorded two assists while Miska finally closed the door on the Gulls’ season with 23 saves on 26 shots.

Larraza chalked up two goals and three points in 11 games with Tucson this season while also collecting seven goals and 25 points in 34 games with the Fort Wayne Komets, the Roadrunners’ ECHL affiliate.

The two points were the first as a pro for Gross, who signed an two-year entry-level contract with the Coyotes on April 12 after recording a runner-up finish with Notre Dame at the NCAA Division I Frozen Four championships on April 7.

Gross, who led all Fighting Irish defensemen in points, earned a berth on the NCAA championship all-tournament team.

“Jordan was one of the top defensemen in the NCAA last year and we’re thrilled to add him to our organization,” Coyotes President of Hockey Operations and General Manager John Chayka explained. “He’s a mobile, puck-moving, right shot defenseman who is very smart. He will join a great group of young players that we now have in Arizona.”

Gross earned first star honors in his Tucson debut.

The Roadrunners won the inaugural Border Trophy with 15 points (7-4-0-1) to 10 points (5-7-0-0) for San Diego in the 12 games between the teams.

White Out Tucson

The Roadrunners will meet the San Jose Barracuda in the opening round of the Calder Cup playoffs. The best-of-five Pacific Division semifinal series faces off with games April 19 and April 21 in San Jose.

Tucson will host Game 3 on April 25. If necessary, Game 4 would be played at Tucson Arena on April 27 and a possible Game 5 on April 28, also in The Old Pueblo.

Roadrunners fans are encouraged to wear white during home playoff games, a tradition first started in 1985 by the Winnipeg Jets when the current Coyotes franchise was still located in Canada and then continued with the move to Arizona.

The Coyotes held their first White Out during the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs against Anaheim.

The Roadrunners averaged 4,217 fans at Tucson Arena during the 2017-18 regular season – an increase from their inaugural season to demonstrate the team has started to develop a following.

The AHL will release the pairings and dates for all remaining playoff series through the conclusion of the Calder Cup playoffs.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(April 18, 2018)