The NAHL South proved once again that it is the toughest division in the league as it ran up a 14 – 6 – 4 record in the season opening Combat Hockey Showcase Tournament. Each team in the South Division closed out the tournament with a .500 or better record except the Wichita Falls Wildcats who were 1 – 2 – 1. Texas claimed the tournament championship banner going a perfect 4 – 0 – 0. The division continued to prove to the rest of the league that the road to the Robertson Cup would run through the South by racking up a winning record against every other division in the NAHL.
Seven of the past nine seasons have seen the Robertson Cup hoisted by a team from the South Division. The standings through the first half of this season currently have South Division teams holding down three of the top four spots in the league.
Let’s take a look at the first half South Division standings and how the teams got there.
Current Standings as of Dec 20, 2012
|Corpus Christi|| |
|Wichita Falls|| |
Coach Dennis Williams has the Amarillo Bulls revved up and running on all cylinders this season. After coming oh so close the past two seasons Amarillo is looking to 2012/13 as their season.
During their first year in the league in 2010 the Bulls finished the regular season tied for second place with Texas. In the Robertson Cup Tournament Amarillo made it as far as the semi-finals before losing to eventual runner-upMichigan. In 2011 it looked as if the Bulls were destined to snag the championship that had alluded them the year before as they claimed the regular season championship with a record 99 points on a 46 – 7 – 7 record. Once againAmarillo made it to the semi-finals before losing to eventual runner-up St. Louis.
Goaltending – Amarillo’s netminders lead the league in GAA at 2.10 with the tandem anchored by a very experienced Paul Berrafato. Prior to this season Berrafato had logged 63 games between the Jr. Sabers of the OJHL and Muskegon of the USHL. Berrafato is joined by rookies Collin Delia and Chad Catt. Despite the very good GAA, the save percentage is middle of the pack ranking 13th at .904, which points to the Bulls strong defensive core.
Defense – Captain John Rey leads a veteran core of defensemen which includes only two rookies in Joe Grabowski (Princeton ECACHL) and Connor Frey. Amarillo added to their defensive depth with a very good early season pick-up bringing in veteran Tyler Rostenkowski (Air Force of Atlantic Hockey) via trade with Wenatchee. Rostenkowski is in his fourth season in the NAHL. The defense also included second year Garret Peterson (Army of Atlantic Hockey). Other than the two rookies the Bulls defensemen all have over 70 games of experience at the Jr A level, showing that this team is built from the nets out. Amarillo has seven of the top eight in the league in the +/- column and have allowed the fewest shots on goal in the league at just 21.86 per game.
Forwards – The Bulls have a very balanced offensive attack with 15 players at double figures in points. The offense is led by fourth year veterans T.J. Sarcona (Niagara Univ. Atlantic Hockey) and Tyler Deresky (Bentley Atlantic Hockey). Sarcona leads all scorers with 32 points. Second year forward Mike Davis leads the league in +/- with an astounding +33. Rookie Hampus Gustafsson (Merrimack Hockey East) has made his presence felt as well with 18 points in just 15 games. The average Bulls forward has over 54 games of experience in nearly two seasons at this level.
Special Teams – Special teams have played fairly well for the Bulls. The powerplay ranks seventh in the league at 18.66% with 25 goals on 134 opportunities. When on the penalty kill their defense first mentality shows through once again, as they rank eighth at 86.13% allowing only 19 goals on 137 times short handed. The Bulls have benefited from six short handed goals while giving up only two.
Schedule –Amarillo benefited slightly by playing 15 games against the bottom three teams in the division during the first half compared to 10 games against the other top teams. The second half of the season will see a basically balanced schedule for Amarillo with 17 home games and 14 on the road. They will once again have the disparity of most of those games against the lower half of the division. The Bulls will play 17 games (Corpus Christi 8, Wichita Falls 5, Odessa 4) against the teams below .500 and 14 games (Texas 8, Topeka 6) against the teams with a winning record. However, in the first half Amarillo was a combined 8 – 1 – 1 against the Tornado and Roadrunners.
The Texas Tornado had an improbable run to the Robertson Cup Championship last season. After finishing third in the division and dropping their first round playoff series to the Topeka Roadrunners, Texasmade the most of their host team spot in the tournament. They advanced out of pool play on the goal differential tie breaker, and then in the semi-final matchup they downed Fairbanks 4 – 3 in overtime to advance to the championship against St. Louis. Against the Bandits, the Tornado took a one goal lead in the first only to see it evaporate into a 3 – 2 St. Louis lead in the second.Texas knotted the score in the third to send the game to overtime setting the stage for Rookie Justin Greenberg’s heroics as he put home a rebound to give Texas their fifth Robertson Cup National Championship.
Texascame into this season with a young inexperienced team with 14 rookies making the season opening roster. Despite their age and inexperience the team jelled quickly getting off to a fast start winning all four games and claiming the championship of the season opening Combat Hockey Showcase. Texas eventually ran their early win streak to nine games before losing to Topeka on Oct 13th. As a testament to the scouting and head coach Tony Curtale, the Tornado roster at the end of the first half was virtually unchanged from the one that started the season. Despite injuries to key blueliners Texas has weathered the storm with only two additions to the roster in the first half.
Goaltending – Hunter Leisner who carried the majority of the load including the National Championship game after coming over in a mid-season trade with Aberdeen last season returned to backstop the Tornado once again. Leisner currently has 18 wins to lead the league. The local Garland, TX native is in his third NAHL season and has played in 122 games. He was also invited to the Dallas Stars Development Camp in July. While Leisner has once again seen the bulk of the action, rookie Jerry Kaukinen has contributed when given the opportunity. In his six starts Kaukinen has put up a 4 – 1 – 1 record. Tornado goaltending ranks 13th in the league with a 2.73 GAA and is 14th with a .902 SV%.
Defense – Five rookies have been in the Tornado defensive rotation on a regular basis this season. Despite being loaded with first year players the Tornado defense ranks fourth in the league with 27.79 shots against per game. The rookie defenders have looked to second year vets Nick Neville and Michael Hoy along with third year veteran Alex Temby for leadership at the blueline. Both Neville and Hoy have been active offensively as well with 15 and 13 points respectively. Temby recently returned to the lineup after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury.
Forwards – Up front the Tornado are led by third year player and Captain Jackson Leef and a group of eight productive rookies. In addition to Leef, Texas is getting veteran leadership from Justin Greenberg and C.J. Reuschlein (Army Atlantic Hockey). The Tornado boast four players ranked among the top 10 in scoring with all four having 32 or more points on the season. Rookie Brandon Hawkins with 38 points has served notice by jumping out to the league lead in goals scored with 25, six more than his closest pursuer. The other 32 point plus scorers are Leef with 35 (including a league leading 30 assists), Greenberg with 34 points and rookie Scott Conway with 32 points. Veteran Drew Mayer who suffered a broken wrist in the first period of the season opening game has returned to chip in 14 points in 17 games played.
Special Teams – The Tornado powerplay led the league for much of the season but has seen their numbers slip somewhat of late and now set in second place at 21.28% converting 30 of 141 opportunities. Texas’ penalty kill got off to a slow start to the season but has been on a steady climb up the rankings to finish the first half holding on to the seventh spot in the league at 86.82% killing off 112 of 129 penalties. A sore spot for the Tornado has been the number of short handed goals allowed. They have given up a total of seven short handed goals to rank last in the league while scoring only two. On Nov 9thTexas surrendered three short handed goals toCorpus Christi in a game they lost 4 – 2. It was the only game they lost to the Icerays in the first half out of six contests.
Schedule – The roughest part of the schedule for the Tornado was a 10 games in 18 days stretch in November which included road trips toOdessa andTopeka. Six of the Tornado’s 10 losses on the season came during the 18 day period.Texas was only 2 – 7 – 0 againstAmarillo andTopeka in the first half and will see the two teams a combined 15 times in the second half. On the other hand they will face the bottom half of the division 12 times and put up a 16 – 3 – 1 record against those teams.Texas’ remaining 27 games will be split between 14 at home and 13 on the road.
Topeka Roadrunners like Amarillo have been close the past two seasons but came up just short. The Roadrunners won both the South Div and Regular season titles in 2010 but lost toAmarillo in the second round of the playoffs. As host of the Robertson Cup Tournament they still had a shot at the National Championship, but lost all three tournaments games. In 2011 the Roadrunners finished the season in a tie for second in the division with the Tornado. Again they lost to Amarillo in the second round ending their season.
In looking to get over the hump and claim the Robertson Cup, Coach Scott Langer pulled together a veteran laden group for this season.Topeka entered the season with the oldest, most experienced team in the South Division if not the entire league. Langer has made four roster moves that increased the veteran depth on the team adding nearly 400 games of experience to an already deep roster. As the first half of the season came to a close, Topeka carried only three rookies on the roster.
Goaltending – The Topeka netminders combine for nearly 5 years of experience and 146 games at this level. Spencer Viele who has logged the most minutes of the two also benefited from being the starting goalie for the St Louis Blues during last seasons Robertson Cup Tournament including the championship game. Viele has put up impressive numbers in the first half with a 1.84 GAA and .935 SV% to go along with 13 wins. Mackenzie Sawyer has been more than a serviceable backup as he has racked up 6 – 4 – 3 record between the pipes. Combined the Roadrunners goal tending tandem is ranked 2nd in the league for save percentage at .921% and are third with a 2.23 GAA.
Defense –Topeka is stocked with veterans on the backend. Each of the defensemen are in their second year or beyond with a minimum of 58 games of experience. The group is led by Trace Strahle with 186 games under his belt and Mick Bruce who has played in 139. The Roadrunners allow the fifth fewest shots on goal per game at 28.26 and are third in goals against per game with 2.23.
Forwards – This is an offense with some fire power at the top. Topeka has two of the top five goal scorers in the league in veterans Kyle Sharkey with 19 and Sean Gaffney (Univ. ofConnecticut Atlantic Hockey) with 17. Gaffney also leads the league in points scored with 42 while Sharkey leads the league in powerplay goals with 9. Cody Hansen who Topeka recently bought over in a trade with Johnstown has the distinction of holding the top spot in PIMs with 143 in 21 games played this season. While Topeka has outscored their opponents in each period, the third is where they shine with a 40 – 19 goal differential.
Special Teams – Both the powerplay and penalty kill rank sixth in the league. The powerplay has converted 30 of 150 powerplays for 20.00%. Their 150 powerplay opportunities ranks second behind Johnstown’s 157. On the penalty kill the Roadrunners are at 87.05% on 18 goals allowed on 139 penalty kills. In addition the penalty kill has contributed seven short handed goals which is tied for second in the league.
Schedule – In the unbalanced schedule of the NAHL Topeka has played more games against the North Division Springfield Jr Blues than they have against two of the teams in their own division Corpus Christi and Wichita Falls combined. On the season the Roadrunners are 7 – 4 – 2 against teams over .500 and 12 – 3 – 3 against those below .500. In the second half Topeka will play 13 games at Langdon Arena and 16 games on the road. They will see a lot of the Wichita Falls Wildcats with 10 games scheduled. The schedule also includes seven games with Texas and six with Amarillo.
Corpus Christi Icerays
Since joining the league in 2010 the Corpus Christi Icerays have yet to reach the playoffs. In their inaugural season they finished fifth in the six team division. Last season they looked as though they would make their first post season appearance only to be booted from the fourth and final playoff spot on the last day of the season. The fans in Corpus Christi show tremendous support for the Icerays averaging nearly 3,000 per game and will expect a playoff run soon.
Head coach Justin Quinville had his work cut out for him as he attempted to fill the huge shoes left by goaltender Anthony Stolarz who was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round with the 45th overall pick. The task has not been an easy one for Quinville as evidenced by the revolving door in net for the Icerays. They have had four goalies play four or more games so far this season.
Goaltending – Corpus Christi’s goalies rank 21st in the league with a .895 SV%. The issue is compounded by the fact that the Icerays netminders have faced the sixth highest shots per game at 33.96 per game which has resulted in a 3.57 GAA that ranks them 20th. Now that the Icerays have settled on their current tandem the numbers are moving in the right direction. They brought in Hayden Stewart fromMuskegon of the USHL and Ben Myers in a trade with Minot. Combined Stewart and Myers have a 3.39 GAA and .904 SV%.
Defense – Veterans Ryan Chiasson, John Roisum and Andrew Paras have been the core of the defense for the Icerays this season. The back end took a major hit when Phil Pietroniro left the team to move to the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL. Pietroniro still ranks second in defenseman scoring for the Icerays despite playing only the first 14 games of the season. Caleb O’Brien was recently added to the roster through a trade with Aberdeen to help shore up the defense.
Forwards – Rudy Sulmonte and Perry D’Arrisso lead the team in scoring with both putting up an identical 11G – 15A for 26 points. Austrian born Emil Romig has contributed 22 points, but from there the scoring begins to drop off rather rapidly. Corpus Christi has been outshot in every period this season and outscored in all but the third period. Recent trades of Ian McGilvrey, and Jonathan Grebosky have depleted some of the already shallow depth at forward. Roman Uchyn was called up to Des Moines of the USHL where he is expected to play 10 games before returning to the Icerays The 10 game stint will allow the Buccaneers to protect his rights for next season.
Special Teams – The Icerays powerplay has been mediocre this season and currently ranks 12th in the league at 16.50% with 17 goals on 103 chances. The issue is that there are only three teams with fewer powerplay opportunities. On the other hand Corpus Christi has been on the penalty kill the sixth most at 130. That does not bode well for a team that only kills penalties at 83.08% allowing 22 goals on the 130 penalty kills. The Icerays do have seven short handed goals but have given up six.
Schedule – WhileCorpus Christi had some success against the number one team in the league going 2 – 2 – 0 against Amarillo they did not fare so well against Texas and Topeka with a combined 1 – 7 – 2 record. The Icerays also played relatively well against Fairbanks and Kenai Rivers, winning three of four games in Alaska and two of four at the American Bank Center. Things may get a little easier for the Icerays in the second half as they will face Odessa 12 times and Wichita Falls four times. However, they will also see Amarillo and Texas in a combined 14 games. The Icerays will play 18 games on the road and 14 at home.
Wichita Falls Wildcats
Despite reaching the playoffs five of the last eight years, the Wichita Falls Wildcats have never made it out of the first round of post season play. Wichita Falls has failed to finish better than third in the division since 2004.
Coach Paul Baxter has been searching for the right chemistry all season and has a roster that is constantly changing. Wichita Falls has made a total of 20 roster moves through the first half of the season. Setting five points behind Corpus Christi, the Wildcats are staring squarely at the possibility of missing the playoffs for the second season in a row.
Goaltending – Wildcats starting goalie Evan Cowley has been between the pipes for 22 of the teams 29 games. Cowley has posted a 7 – 13 – 2 record with a 3.30 GAA and .891 SV%. Despite his struggles Cowley was on the NHL Central Scouting Watch List released in mid September. On the season Wichita Falls ranks 23rd with a 3.72 GAA and last with a .880 SV%.
Defense – This is a somewhat inexperienced group of defenders with six defensemen having less than 30 games at this level. Charles Hemstrom and Chris Knudson have provided veteran leadership. Rookie Erik Ouellette has pitched in with 10 points on the season to lead defensemen in scoring.
Forwards – As with the defense the veteran presence within the forward group is lacking, as 10 of the Wildcats forwards have logged less than 30 games at the Jr A level. Only two players have more than 100 games of experience with Eliot Grauer at 130 games and Patrick Yudez at 111. Grauer is tied with Kyle Bauman at 20 points for the team lead in scoring. In spite of all this, Wichita Falls has college commitments from four of their forwards. Ben Kucera, Will Vosejpka and Tyler Ledford (all Air Force Atlantic Hockey) and Helsinki, Finland native Sami Salminen (N. Michigan Univ. CCHA).
Special Teams – There is little to get excited for with the Wildcats special teams as both the powerplay and penalty kill rank near the bottom of the league. Wichita Falls’ powerplay has struggled all season and is currently ranked 20th at 11.57%. They have converted only 14 of 121 opportunities. The penalty kill has performed even worse managing only a 23rd ranking allowing 23 goals on 103 times short handed. The saving grace for the penalty kill is that the Wildcats 103 penalty kills is the second lowest in the league. One of the few bright spots for the special teams has been their five short handed goals scored while surrendering only one.
Schedule –Wichita Falls has posted a winning record against only a single team this season going 3 – 1 – 0 against Corpus Christi the team directly ahead of them in the standing. The two Alaska teams were not kind to the Wildcats as Wichita Falls won only two of the eight games against Fairbanks and Kenai River . Twenty of Wichita Falls remaining 31 games will be against Topeka and Odessa with 10 games apiece. The balance of the schedule contains five games with Amarillo, four with Corpus Christi and two with Texas. The Wildcats will play 18 times on the home ice of the Kay Yeager Coliseum.
Last season was the Odessa Jackalopes first in the league after joining Amarillo and Corpus Christi as ex-CHL markets that made the move to the Junior A level. The Jackalopes jumped on the back of their netminder and eventual fifth round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, Connor Hellebuyck and rode him to a late season surge. The surge led to the Jackalopes overtaking Corpus Christi on the final day of the season to claim the final playoff spot. Odessa made a valiant effort in their first round meeting with Amarillo but fell to the Bulls in four games with one of the losses coming in overtime.
The equipment manager for the Jackalopes has been kept busy changing name plates this season as Odessa has made in excess of 21 roster moves. Coach Paul Gillis has yet to hit on the right combination especially in net where five different goalies have had their shot at the job and attempt to live up to the legacy left by Hellebuyck.
Goaltending – After watching the play of Hellebuyck last season the play in net for Odessa this season must be a major let down for the fans of Odessa. On the season the conga line of goalies has produced a combined 4.36 GAA and a .886 SV%. The Jackalopes are the only team in the league with a GAA greater than four. Their save percentage ranks them 22nd in the league. Newcomer Nick Deery gave the team reason to hope as he got the 3 – 2 win over Texas in his first and only action for the team in the last game of the first half.
Defense – The defense does have a veteran presence with third year player Zane Popilock and second year players Curt Rau, Mike Mezzano and Captain Tyler Minx. However they have failed to jell as a unit and are last in the league in shots allowed with 38.18 per game.
Forwards –Odessa has only five players with double digits in scoring and one of those is defenseman Minx. Three year veteran Lawrence Cornellier leads the team in goals with 14 and points with 27. He is joined by second year Ryan Doucet (Air Force Atlantic Hockey) with 20 points as the only two player on the roster to reach the 20 point mark. Josh Racek (Univ. Minnesota Duluth WCHA) has also made his college commitment. Recent additions Matt Volonnino and Jimmy Peplinski will be looked at to help shore up the offense and offer some veteran leadership.
Special Teams – The picture does not get any rosier with the special teams. The Odessa powerplay ranks 23rd in the league at just 10.66% having notched only 13 goals on 122 opportunities. The penalty kill is only slightly better at 79.26% giving up 28 goals on 135 times short handed to rank 20th. Unfortunately for the penalty kill they spend a lot of time on the ice as the Jackalopes 135 penalty kills ranks 20th in times short handed. Odessa has yet to score a short handed goal this season, but have given up four.
Schedule – Odessa may have had the worst schedule in the league. During the first half they faced Amarillo, Texas and Topeka a combined 22 times managing only two wins and six points. Things look much better for the Jackalopes in the second half with only 10 games combined against the top three teams in the division while they will face Corpus Christi 12 times and Wichita Falls 10 times setting up what could be another late season run at the final playoff spot. The problem is, setting 15 points behind Corpus Christi for fourth place in the division they may have dug too deep a hole to climb out of this time.