BY: COLLIN SCHUCK
After a roller coaster of a season’s start, the Corpus Christi IceRays are right in the thick of things.
The team is already at the quarter mark of the still very young and naïve 2014-15 season, and expectations continue to mount with the team off to one of their best starts in junior franchise history, entering this weekend’s tilt against the Wichita Falls Wildcats with a 6-5-4 record, good for 16 points and a share of third place in the South Division with those same Wildcats. They rest just one point behind the Lone Star Brahmas for second place and look poised to a return to the postseason for just the second time in five years.
This also only the second time the IceRays enter the quarter mark with a plus-.500 record, only behind the 2011-12 squad, who finished the first 15 games with a 9-6-0 record and 18 points.
Though the IceRays may feel that their squad should have more wins than they currently own due to circumstances not necessarily in their control, Head Coach John Becanic feels that the results through the first 15 games have been just based on their play.
“I don’t think we deserve any more,” said Becanic, “and I don’t think it’s embellishing our record. It’s exactly how we’ve played. In two of the four overtime losses, we’ve scored the game-winning goal late in the game that were disallowed, and in the first shootout loss we were up by two goals with three shooters to go. You flip those three around, and all of a sudden we’re 9-5-1, we’re sitting in second place, and I’m probably a lot happier of a coach.”
With those three extra points in overtime and shootouts, the IceRays would be at 19 points and two points ahead of the Lone Star Brahmas. No matter the result, Becanic also mentioned that shootouts aren’t something you can really coach, and one just hopes their players perform in those moments.
“It’s hard to judge your team based on four overtime losses. They’ve played well enough to get themselves the win, and because of a specialty event, you lose. That’s part of the game, and it goes both ways, so I can’t really complain about it.”
FIRST QUARTER RECAP
After a rocky opening weekend in Topeka, the IceRays rebounded with a 2-1-1 effort in the North American Hockey League Showcase, their best result since 2012 when the team also went 2-1-1 and earning a winning record in the Showcase for the third time in five seasons. Defense was key in the four-day tournament, and the IceRays came out of the Showcase as one of the best defenses in the NAHL.
The upturn continued as the team opened their home schedule at the American Bank Center, defeating the Lone Star Brahmas on Sep. 27 by a 3-2 final. The ensuing weekend, they’d add two more wins, this time against the Wenatchee Wild, 2-1 and 3-2. Sitting tied for second place in the South Division at 5-2-2, the IceRays traveled north to embark on their second road trip of the season.
That’s where the team’s successes started to falter.
On night one, both teams combined for 97 penalty minutes in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Brahmas. While gaining a point that night, that slip in form would foreshadow the night that followed. Forward Brad LeLievre went down with a lower body injury that has sidelined him since. Defenseman Travis Howe suffered a dislocated hand that would sideline him for the next weekend. Forward Nic LaBurn was smacked with a two-game suspension for an obscene gesture at the very end of the game. All of this comes amidst a 5-2 loss to the Brahmas.
Back home the next weekend against top-ranked Topeka, the IceRays played virtually shorthanded despite the call-up of forward Regan Cavanagh for the weekend from the USPHL to fill-in on the fourth line. They forced a 4-3 overtime win on Friday night but fell 5-2 on Saturday, dropping their first complete season series of the season 1-2-1. Connor Kelly was injured on Friday night but would play through it on Saturday and recover to avoid missing time.
This led to where we stand today, with the team dropping both games last weekend against the Amarillo Bulls, 5-4 in a shootout and 6-3 in regulation.
Two key factors led the IceRays into their current rut: defense and injuries. Defensively, the IceRays have fallen to a share of 18th place with the Springfield Jr. Blues in goals allowed at 47 goals. What seemed to be the focal point of the team shifted to one of the places to improve as the offense has come to life.
“Our attack hockey has been very good," said Becanic. "We’ve gotten better and made significant improvements that way, but as typical dealing with young athletes, while we were doing that we lost our ability to defend. We went from a team that was third-ranked in the league in defense to the bottom. To me, that’s a very easily fixable problem. “
Injuries have been the recurring theme of the season, with a total of four injuries coming to some of their biggest on-ice factors. Jenson has been placed on injured reserve, and LeLievre remains out with an injury. Howe and Kelly have both been playing banged up, with Kelly not missing any time.
“Since those injuries, we’ve gone 1-2-2, so clearly it’s a factor. And it wasn’t just one injury; it was four. Our depth was certainly questioned. On the flipside, you could look at it and say, ‘Geez, we still got points in three of five games missing quite a few players.’”
FIRST QUARTER REPORT CARD
With the second quarter of the season beginning tonight, let’s award grades for the first 15 games completed.
With a highly-touted skill team on the ice, the IceRays have only been able to score 39 goals through their first quarter of the season. Having play step up from the back end of the ice is pivotal in the transition from side-to-side in the rink, but a lack of offense, especially in five-on-five situations and early in the season, have forced their focus through last weekend to be on front end play. Wes Michaud leads all skaters with 11 assists and 17 points, while Tanner Lomsnes has a team-high seven goals. Anthony Cortese is tied with Lomsnes in points this season with 13.
Coach’s Take: “It’s tricky. If you look at our defense, we’ve had a lot of scoring coming from them, which is outstanding. You could say, ‘Geez, we’re getting a lot of scoring from our back end, which is huge,’ but then we’ve had some guys that were brought here to perform and to score goals, and we haven’t seen that translate yet.”
Despite their recent spell, the defense has been a strong suit for this IceRays squad on both sides of the ice. Anthony Cortese and Logan Gestro both remain in the top-five in scoring on the team, and couple their play with the likes of Taylor Karel and Trevor Heuser, and the back end continues to look strong. And the roller coaster thus far has been largely to the defense.
Coach’s Take: “I think it’s been a tale of two smaller seasons. We start out defending very well. We defended really well through Blaine. We came home and defended well against Lone Star and Wenatchee, and then we had kind of a hiccup. If we hadn’t had this little hiccup, I would’ve given our defending maybe an A.”
Don’t let their records and statistics fool you. Andrew Lindgren and Luke Pickar have maintained a very strong presence between the pipes, floating within the top-10 and top-15 in all major categories through most of the season thus far. Even in games where the IceRays have dropped five or six goals, the netminders have kept the team within reach to try to make a large difference.
Coach’s Take: “I think how we’ve defended the last five games has significantly affected their numbers. It’s a little unfair to say our goaltending hasn’t been great. I just think we haven’t defended well as an entire team the last five games. You see it in never sport. I think our goaltending has been fine. I think it’s won us some games and gotten us points when we didn’t deserve points. I have no issues with our goaltending. Some nights we haven’t given them enough runs to get them the win.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
The skill and versatility of this year’s squad has manifested itself in special teams play. After a rough first two games in Topeka, the special teams have found a rhythm and are beating it strong. The penalty kill ranks third in the NAHL at 89.33 percent, and the power play remains seventh at 22.73 percent. When the team has needed a spark–this includes three power play goals in Saturday’s 6-3 loss in Amarillo–the groups have produced and produced momentum where there may not have been previously.
Coach’s Take: “Anytime you’re operating where we’re operating right now on special teams, that’s great. And we hope that stays status quo and we get to defend better. We know that we’re scoring more right now and creating more offense, but it’ll be interesting to see where we are 15 games from now and we revisit it.”
MOST SURPRISING: Connor Kelly (F)
Most may except veteran players like Connor Kelly to continue to produce and be a large factor on the ice, but the biggest change in the forward is seen behind closed doors, and the coaches have taken notice. He’s fluttered around the top-six point scorers this season mainly on the second line with a goal and five assists, three of those assists coming in the team’s 5-2 win against Kenai River at the NAHL Showcase.
Coach’s Take: “From a veteran’s standpoint, I can’t say enough about Connor Kelly and the transformation of his game and his attitude. Him treating the game as a pro. Off all the people, that’s been the biggest surprise and my most pleasant surprise from an overall perspective, not just on the ice. He’s been a key cog in the wheel so far this year.”
MOST IMPROVED: Logan Gestro (D) & Taylor Karel (D)
Coming into the season, both Logan Gestro and Taylor Karel were parts of the puzzle that were still yet be fully determined. When the team traveled north for the NAHL Showcase, both players started to come into their own and show what they can really bring to the squad. Gestro was paired with Anthony Cortese on the top defensive pairing and haven’t been separated since. Karel has nestled toward the back end, but his strong defensive-end play make him a large asset to the team’s backcheck.
Coach’s Take: We were excited about getting Logan, but the amount of minutes he plays, the various roles that he plays, and our expectations of him. It’s not to say he wasn’t capable, just that he could take on the load that he’s taken. He’s still an 18-year-old kid, new to the league, and plays a lot of minutes. It’s difficult when you’re that big at such a young age and you’re working through your athleticism because you’re such a large guy in a kid’s body, but I think both of them have adjusted to the junior game.
With all of the injuries, transactions, and swings in momentum, the team remains right in the middle of the pack. The team is in their second-best start to a season in franchise history at the junior level, and it’s hard to be unhappy with the way things have transpired overall. Yet, we’ve still seen just glimpses into the full potential of this unit. When they’re firing on all cylinders, they can contend with anyone, regardless of the outcome. It’s a matter of getting all the cogs working at the same time in the same direction.
Coach’s Take: “No matter how you look at it, you’ve got 19 players that didn’t play here last year, and they’re still trying to find a way to be a good team on a regular basis. That takes time, and through our growth and transition we still find ourselves in a playoff spot. That’s always your focus: to make the playoffs. As long as we’re in that playoff spot and we’re working towards it, then I’m OK as long as we’re getting better.”
The IceRays play 11 of their 15 games in the second quarter of the season at home, where the team owns a 6-1-0 record. It’s a pivotal time in the season to regain form and push forward as a lay up for the second half of the season. Already playing catch-up with Topeka for the top spot, it’s rational to say that this team has the making of a playoff team. However, as the adage goes, it’s a very long season, and you never know what can happen in the grind of 60 games.
“We’ve been pretty good at home, and we’re home almost the entire month of November," said Becanic. "That doesn’t mean you automatically get wins, but if we can continue to win at the percentage at home, that should separate ourselves more from the bottom of the pack and keep ourselves closer to the top half. We don’t control our destiny versus Topeka, but right now we’ve played a few more games than Lone Star and Wichita. My goal at the midway mark, which will take us to right around Christmas, is if we can find ourselves within four or five points of that second place spot, I’d be really happy.”
On Nov. 5, 2013, forward Brad LeLievre was traded to the IceRays from the Kenai River Brown Bears for captain Eric Purcell and two tenders. In those two tenders, the team picked up Logan Gestro and Nathan Bryer. At the time, the deal was not thought about kindly amongst the IceRays community, but here’s a picture of that deal almost one year later: Purcell is no longer playing hockey, Bryer is a second-line center with five points, Gestro has been arguably the team’s top-defenseman throughout most games, and LeLievre (despite his injury) joins Bryer on a strong second line.
It just goes to show that you can never predict how things will unfurl in such a short amount of time. Luckily for Becanic and the IceRays, it seems that the team has all the right pieces ready to go while they just wait for the right time to fully bloom.
Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.