Saturday, 11.04.17 / 9:07 am CT
With a quarter of the 2017-18 season now behind them, the IceRays have had enough time to gauge their potential and to assess their strengths and weaknesses. With seven weeks of hockey having already been played, there is no question the group boasts an abundance of talented players. However, it’s fair to say that the IceRays are in an underwhelming spot at the moment, with expectations being so high following the team’s best season in junior franchise history.
Brad Flynn is of the mind that the statistics are not emblematic of the way the team has played, nor have they been indicative of the team’s potential and its future. It’s difficult to argue with his rationale. “I believe that the start we have gotten off to hasn’t been as bad as the numbers may suggest,” Flynn said. “We as a team have to play with the hand we are dealt and this season the hand we have been dealt has been a very challenging schedule to start. One thing that comes from the success that we had last year is now we don’t surprise anyone, every team is ready to play us every night. We had a big turnover due to the amount of players that made the USHL and NCAA, so as a group we are understanding how to play and win in this league. Last year at the start of the season our record was similar, this group is getting to the point where they are hating to lose and getting comfortable playing in tight, low scoring games which will help us down the stretch.”
Hating to lose is an intangible characteristic that almost all championship teams possess, and it’s one that’s invisible on the stat sheet. Numbers seldom tell the entire story, especially in hockey. But from a purely numerical standpoint, things look head-scratchingly low in several areas. Most surprisingly of all, the Rays have a league-worst 8.1% power play following a 2016-17 season which saw them crack the top five in the NAHL. While the campaign is young yet and it is nearly impossible for those numbers to not escalate eventually, it is still an alarming statistic which the IceRays head coach has pondered for some time.
“Execution hasn’t been there on the power play, I believe it is a combination of chemistry and confidence,” Flynn said. “We have talented players who have produced in the past, some new to junior hockey, some in new positions on the power play. I really don’t think we will be at 8% or whatever we are all season, traditionally in my time here our power play is in the top 6 or 7 in the league. Last weekend although we went scoreless on the power play there was light at the end of the tunnel, our situational play created scoring chances and gave us momentum. Their goalie made some big saves, but we saw some real positives.”
Whether it was Rylee St. Onge missing the net by half an inch on a one-timer, or Matt Acciaioli being robbed by a miraculous save and two posts, or the puck bouncing on Bud Winter just as he was about to tap it into an empty net to tie the game, the “close, but no cigar” idiom has been haunting the IceRays virtually all season, and it seems to be amplifying on power plays.
Something that is easy to forget is that the IceRays lost two players who were expected to be strong offensive contributors before the season even started, which took its toll on the already challenging hand the team had been dealt. “[D]ue to some major injuries in training camp, we have lost some very big pieces of our program,” Flynn noted. “David Thomson who is a 20 year old and second-year player who was slated to be our first line center and a fixture on our power play (tied for first in power play goals last year) had a serious lower body injury that will keep him out until after Christmas. Coltan Wilkie, a Colorado College committed defenseman, sustained a broken neck in training camp and he is also out until after Christmas.”
Losing Thomson and Wilkie instantly handcuffed the IceRays before the season even began, and has led to inevitable fallout and turnover. Ultimately, the two injuries helped spark the biggest roster overhaul in junior franchise history, leading to sixteen transactions over the course of five weeks. Aleksi Peltonen, Jovan Zimmerman, Michal Steinocher, Rylee St. Onge, Pavel Koreshkov, Matus Havrila, Jacob Acton, and AJ DiCesare were all added after the regular season started.
Setting aside the fact that the said group is composed of six different native languages, developing chemistry takes time when there are so many moving pieces involved. The talent is there. The effort has been there. Flynn believes the synergy will follow. “The players that have come are all now 6-8 games in the league and are adjusting well,” Flynn said. “There is a reason the NAHL had 291 NCAA committed players playing last year, along with NHL draft picks like our own Tomas Vomacka. It is because it’s a very good league, arguably the best Junior A hockey league in North America. There is an adjustment period for everyone who hasn’t played in the league before. Our starts haven’t been up to par in the first period, we have to come hungry and ready to start work on time and that falls on me as the head coach. We tried a couple things a little different last Saturday in terms of matchups and line combinations and we had a good first period so that was a positive.”
Another positive is the fact that the longest road stretch in the team’s history will soon be over, and returning home with a .500 mark from the ten-game span remains a distinct possibility. After this weekend’s stint in Topeka, the IceRays will already have completed nearly half of their season’s road games. Flynn is confident the sheer prospect of returning home will be enough to boost the team’s morale significantly and will only help as the season goes on. “We will be able to get into a bit more of a routine, not be on the road as much and most importantly have the support of our fans behind us. We are learning to play on the road which is important for championship success, but in saying that there are a lot of bonuses to playing at home and we are looking forward to it.”
Next weekend, the Rays will finally return home after more than a month of consecutive weekend road trips. They will host the Topeka RoadRunners at the American Bank Center at 7:05 pm CT. Friday night, the IceRays will be giving away free team magnet schedules to the first 1000 fans through the doors. Saturday night, they will honor the men and women who protect Corpus Christi and the United States with their tenth annual Stars & Stripes Night, presented by First Title Company, Whataburger, Navy Federal Credit Union, Roto-Rooter and Mike Shaw Toyota. Admission is free for all active and former military members, as well as first responders.
“In closing, there have been plenty of bright spots in the first 16 games of the season,” Flynn said. “I have thought our goaltending has given us a chance to win most nights, our defensemen are adapting well to the league and our forwards have contributed well on the defensive side of the puck. I have been very impressed with our veteran players starting with our captain Brendan Miller, assistants Matt Acciaioli and Conor Yawney who have been solid contributors leading by example. Garrett Halford, Jayson Dimizio, Matt Novo, Larry Jungwirth, Trevor Wilhelm and CJ Regula have all been positive contributors so far on both sides of the puck. Our 13 first-year NAHL players have adapted well and are gaining confidence in learning how to play inside the NAHL South division. I expect a bigger push in the next quarter of the season. Our team is growing together and although our loss in Amarillo (1-0) last weekend was disappointing, I was very proud of the work ethic and attention to details that was shown in the game. They proved that we are very close, after a couple good hard practices to start the week we are excited to take the next step in Topeka.”
Positive vibes have resonated around the team all week, and now they will be put to the test against the Topeka RoadRunners this weekend. Puck drop is set for 7:05 pm CT on Saturday, and 5:05 pm CT on Sunday. The games will be broadcast on HockeyTV.com and on 1230 AM SportsRadio Corpus Christi.