By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
Jan. 7, 2015
“What once seemed impossible is now possible.”
A string of wins and improved outlooks can go a long way to heightening morale and turning over a rough start. Just beyond midway through the 2015-16 season, the IceRays have positioned themselves for a stronger case for a Robertson Cup Playoff berth and proven that patience is paying off. The team has made just two trades this season (one in each quarter), sticking with their young core that ended the second quarter on a hot streak.
“I think it’s given us all a fresher look at the future as opposed to a new season,” said IceRays head Coach John Becanic. “What once looked impossible when you’re six games under .500 and you looked at the schedule, you wondered when you were ever going to get back to .500. I think it gives everybody a renewed focus.”
The IceRays are even at 14-14-3 through 31 games this season with 31 points and sit five points ahead of the Odessa Jackalopes for the fourth and final playoff position in the South Division. To put that into perspective, the IceRays have gone 9-5-1 with 19 points since the end of the first quarter, moving them from tied for last in the South Division to a playoff position while winning eight of their last ten games as well as six of eight games in December. The team nearly doubled their goal production from 26 to 70 in the span of 15 games and recorded three goals or more in just over half of those games compared to just four in their first 16 games. In the team’s five-game win streak, they’ve outscored opposition 20-8.
Much of the conversation leading toward the mid-section of the season was age and adjustment. It’s no secret now that the IceRays have one of the youngest groups in the NAHL, and the adjustment to the style of play in this league, especially in the South Division, can be difficult even coming from other junior hockey leagues. With that comes a scoring hump to hurdle as evidenced to the first quarter numbers, but as comfort sets in players find ways to score and with scoring comes confidence.
“They’ve feel like they’ve adjusted. They think they know how to mentally play in the South Division. You see us now shooting more pucks as opposed to trying to be so cute. It’s the ‘square peg in a round whole’ expression. They’ve tried doing it their way for so long and have failed so many times that we have to change how we play. It’s not just first year guys. It’s guys coming from other junior leagues. There’s a better understanding.”
The largest criticism of the team’s run could be the opponents played during their tear through that span. Since the first quarter report, the IceRays have played teams currently outside the playoffs in 10 of 15 games and in all eight games in December. The IceRays are 6-3-1 in those ten games but does include a sweep at the hands of the Jackalopes in early November and two losses in four attempts against Amarillo—the IceRays also only scored four goals against the Bulls before their six-goal game on December 19 and were under the Jackalopes in all six games in the second quarter.
The South Division has proven though that standings do not always reflect how a result will go, and on both sides of the IceRays’ results the evidence of that continued.
“I don’t think there’s ever an easy night in the South Division…I think, fair or unfair, people disrespected us and didn’t prepare for us, and we caught a few teams off-guard. Not so sure that’s going to happen in the second half.”
SECOND QUARTER RECAP
The IceRays fell into the second quarter of the season with a poor bit of luck. After dropping six of their previous seven games, they traveled to the Ector Coliseum for their first two games of the year against the Odessa Jackalopes after a weekend off on November 6 and 7. The troubles in the opening periods continued in game one, falling down 3-1 after two periods on November 13 before a charge started by co-captain Nathan Bryer to keep the game close despite an empty net goal sealing the 5-3 loss. The following night was a different story. The IceRays, riding on an inspired performance by Graham Hunt, forced overtime with a goal by Brad Power with 1:20 left in the third period to force overtime and a shootout though dropping the game 3-2 with one goal against in the shootout. In that game, Hunt stopped 49 of 51 shots including taking on a franchise-high 28 shots in the second period.
The next week presented the first meeting with the Lone Star Brahmas in a three-game set back home at the American Bank Center starting with a Kids’ Day Game on November 19. The game was closer than advertised with the IceRays earning their first shorthanded goal of the season to open the game thanks to Jimmy O’Brien and were forced into overtime late in the third period. With a few fortunate bounces and great timing, Drake Lindsay scored the game-winner with one minute left in overtime for the team’s second win in the extra period in four attempts and a 4-3 upset of the Brahmas.
The next two nights weren’t as fortunate with the Brahmas taking control early and often in the contest. In Friday’s game, the Brahmas scored three goals in the first period and held a 4-0 lead heading into the third before two quick goals by Carter Johnson made the came close but still out of reach. Saturday wasn’t much different. The first three goals of the game came from Lone Star forward Alex Berardinelli, who scored the second hat trick against the IceRays on Stars & Stripes Night in consecutive seasons. A Toby Kircher power play goal avoided the shutout, but the home squad fell 4-1 and dropped their three-game week with two losses and allowing Lone Star to gain five of six points.
The IceRays sat at their lowest point of the season, six games under .500 and seven points away from a playoff spot to close out a five-game month with a 1-3-1 record. Outside of on-ice play, morale was a huge focus heading into the Thanksgiving break.
“The challenge you face with this young group when it’s struggling is their mental state. So, my focal point for October and November was keeping it fun. Losing isn’t fun for the coaches, it’s not fun for the players, and it’s not fun for the fans. The fans can go home and forget about it for a couple weeks until we get back. The players can’t forget. So the mental rest was huge for us, and we found out very quickly that’s what we needed.”
For the second-straight month, the IceRays traveled back to the Ector County Coliseum and opened December against the Jackalopes. This time, the IceRays seemed to play like a different team: a team with bite and pushback. After allowing the game’s first goal on December 3, the IceRays answered with two goals by Bryer and Mason Krueger to take a 2-1 lead before an eventual game-tying goal came later in the period. Defenseman Colton Meekhof ripped a shot from the blue line to make it 3-2 early in the second period, and the scoreline remained as the final for the team’s first win over Odessa this season.
The next night started like the previous with an Odessa goal early, however the IceRays countered with three goals in the first period: two by Andy McGlynn sandwiching a Brad Power power play goal. From that point, the IceRays were outpaced in the next two periods 3-1 to cause another overtime game. Kircher’s back-hander propelled the IceRays to a 5-4 win and a sweep of the Jackalopes for the fifth time in seven chances over the last two seasons.
“The sweep in Odessa was huge for us in the sense that it gave us just what we needed. We came back and thought we were going to have all these excuses because of not skating for a few days, and we went there and swept them. I thought that was a bit of a turnaround for us and we built off of that.”
The next four games would be a test to solve Amarillo Bulls netminder Anton Martinsson with two back at the American Bank Center and two more on the road just before the holiday break. The first two saw both teams score three goals in two games, however the results went opposite ways. The first game on Friday, Dec. 11 went in the IceRays’ favor thanks to power play goals from Kircher and Regen Cavanagh to take a 2-1 win while outshooting the Bulls 47-28. The second night was closer, and two goals in the first period by the Bulls provided the difference in a 2-1 loss despite Brad LeLievre’s short-handed goal in the third period.
The following weekend also saw a split but the back end game was a key moment in the team’s season. The Friday night bout also showcased Martinsson, who stopped 41 of 42 shots in Amarillo’s 3-1 win thanks to three goals before the IceRays finally answered in the third period. Saturday, Dec. 19 was the shifting game for the IceRays. After a difficult pre-game meeting with the team during which Becanic presented a new challenge for his ailing team, the IceRays responded in a large way. The team scored a season-high four goals in the first period alone with three coming on the power play and eventually led 5-0 within the first six minutes of the second period. In total, the team scored a season-best four power play goals on only six chances, scored six goals for the first time this season and earned their largest win: a 6-2 take down of the Bulls to split the weekend and provide a spark heading into the holidays.
“It was nice for the guys to score on the power play,” said Becanic following the win. “Gosh knows we needed it for confidence. Sometimes all it takes is a game like that to get you going. It was a fun game to be part of. I was happy for the players … It also got us even in points with Odessa, which was our goal … So, again, I think that gives our guys a little bit of hope.”
After their final off-week of the 2015-16 season for the holidays, the IceRays took on a daunting week that had been circled back in July when the schedule was released: four games in five days spanning around 1,000 miles to host the Odessa Jackalopes on Tuesday and Wednesday then travel to Topeka, Kan. on New Year’s Eve to then play Friday and Saturday against the RoadRunners. It marked the first time the IceRays played four games in a week outside of the NAHL Showcase and a daunting task at a critical juncture of the season.
Another high-powered offensive game resulted in at least overtime for the third time in five games against Odessa. The IceRays scored three-unanswered after allowing the game’s first goal to go up 3-1 before Odessa scored three in the second period. Kircher tied the game and sent it into overtime mid-way through the third period, and LeLievre found an open pass from newly acquired defenseman Cody Lichtenvoort to seal the overtime-winner and a 5-4 victory. Saturday night was much more controlled by the IceRays from the opening drop, and even though they were outshot in the game, the IceRays scored four goals for the third-straight game in a 4-1 win for their second-straight sweep of the Jackalopes and a 6-2-0 month of December.
The team hopped on a bus and traveled right to Topeka following the game to prepare for their first game of the New Year against one of the hottest teams in the NAHL: the RoadRunners. Despite the lengthy travel and hot opponent, the IceRays continued to evolve and play under the traditional “offense by defense” style of play customary for a John Becanic hockey club.
“There are critical moments in every sport, whether it’s the start of the period, after a goal, late in the game. Young guys make bad decisions at critical moments, and they cause you to lose games. In Topeka, we weren’t the best team in the NAHL. We just starting making less bad decisions, which never let them get back in to the game, which we had been doing previously. That’s the maturation of a junior hockey player, and you look at that in building your franchise.“
New Year’s Day showed the dominance of the IceRays defensively but also provided for some strong play up front in the offensive end. Lindsay found the opener on the power play in the first period, then two more came across from line mates LeLievre and Kircher and in the second period. Goaltender Graham Hunt saved all 20 shots faced to earn both his and the team’s first shutout of the year in a 3-0 blanking of the RoadRunners. On Saturday night, the RoadRunners struck first in the opening period in a game with very few offensive chances. The shots were 14-6 Topeka heading into the final period, and Lindsay sparked life with a third-period goal to tie the game, 1-1, followed by an impressive play by Mason Krueger to back-hand a shot over netminder Tyler Johnson to help propel the IceRays to the 2-1 win. The sweep of the RoadRunners is the first in junior franchise history while also helping the team to a 4-1-1 record against Topeka, which triples their previous win total from the last five seasons combined from two to six in just six games.
“If people went to a confessional and were asked what are the chances of the IceRays winning all four games, I don’t think there’s a single person that would tell a priest or a rabbi that they’re going to travel a thousand miles there and back. We’re elated, and the players did the work. You can’t take anything away from the players. It’s only five games, but we’ll take it. It’s fine when you find different ways to win in different environments and maybe when nobody but ourselves believed that we could do it. For us coming from where we’ve been, it was huge.
“We’ve won games in the past where the shots were 50-21, and you said the goalie really stood on his head. Now, Graham played really well, but we helped out a lot defensively. That’s what I’m most proud about: how we’re going about our business.”
SECOND QUARTER REPORT CARD
After the second section of the season, here is an analysis of each section of the team’s play and grades for their performance:
Coming off a disappointing start to the season, the IceRays have picked up play offensively and found ways to score better goals. The IceRays have jumped from last in the NAHL to 19th, improving from a torrid 1.63 goals per game to 2.26 while also getting out of the cellar in total goals. There is still a lot of work to be developed compared to teams like Fairbanks that normally average over four goals a game and to get into the top-half of the NAHL like four of the six South Division teams have, but the IceRays are finding tough goals, creating great opportunities and providing assistance to their netminders to position the team for points. Now, it’s a matter of continuing the production they’ve found in December and making it consistently last.
Coach’s Take: “It starts with the work rate. We work harder and compete harder in situations. There are going to be dips, all teams have them. They’re finding ways to make things happen, and I take zero credit for guys putting it in the net. It’s habits and work. I think when guys aren’t scoring, there’s not much you can do as a coach. You can pray all you want, but the reality is they’ve got to put themselves in position to score. We’re around the puck more and we want the puck more. We’ve increased our shot opportunities because of that.”
There are numerous ways to most accurately evaluate defensive play, and much like the rest of the list grades should be factored in two parts: November and beyond. From a numbers perspective, the IceRays couldn’t contain teams to fewer than three goals in November but then only allowed three or more goals in three of their last ten games, which is also a reflection of goaltending. The intangibles are what we must look at most, and those come in shot blocks, creating offensive transitions, and fore-check play in the offensive zone. The team has showed consistent improvement as of late, especially against a Topeka team that generates fast, quick movement to disrupt plays and frustrate opposition. However, we cannot overlook the struggles in November. The early section does way down the end grade, but that will rise pending the difficult stretch in January.
Coach’s Take: “They found that the better they defended the more offense they got and less time in our zone. We call our zone the work done and the other end the fun zone. Everyone likes playing in the fun zone. To get there, you’ve got to work, and certainly our guys are starting to figure that out…But the reality is we’ve given up eight goals in our last five games, and you’re going to win a lot of games only giving up that many goals. And we’ve won five. We’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. When we hit the jump that we’ve had, people are going to prepare for you.”
The lack of changing grade goes to show that the IceRays can count on their goaltending to keep them in games and provide support when the offense has trouble gaining ground. Much of the numbers concerning goals against also translate to the play of the netminders, but quality of performance also is worth taking a look at. There has been only one game in the six losses this month that the IceRays have finished with a goal differential of more than two. Graham Hunt, who played in 11 of the team’s last 15 games due to a recall of Dryden McKay to the USHL, took on most of the workload. In McKay’s four-game window, he’s greatly improved his first quarter numbers, winning his last two games and reducing his goals against as the month went on. Hunt earned a 7-3-1 record in his second quarter with an active five-game win streak and seven-straight starts. He has also improved, moving into the top-15 in the NAHL in goals-against average from 2.66 to 2.46 and save percentage from .909 to .919. More reduction in goals will result in higher grades, but the netminding tandem has lived up to expectations and is providing strong roles on the back end of games.
Coach’s Take: “Overall our goaltending has been our most consistent part of our game all year. Both goalies can really discourage opposition. Graham does it in a calm fashion and doesn’t seem to get bothered. On the other side, Dryden is so athletic and sometimes acrobatic going east to west. Both have their ways of stopping pucks, and if anything our goalies inspire our team in most nights.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Both the power play and penalty kill have made vast improvements with the team’s successes in the latter part of the second quarter. The IceRays ended a season-high five-game power play goal tear heading through their current win streak, going 8-for-28 (28.57%) and vaulting the team from last in the NAHL to 18th place and over a 14.00% clipping. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been without multiple short-handed chances. The extra-man unit allowed three short-handed goals in the last 15 games and has been fortunate with a few more not capitalized on. In addition, they also went five of their first six games in the quarter without a power play goal, going 1-for-20 (5.00%). On the other side, the penalty kill continues to clamp down and halt opposing teams from multiple power play goals. Right now, the IceRays have killed off their last 16 chances while keeping teams away from multi-goal outputs on the power play in five of their seven games allowing a man-advantage tally. They’ve also vaulted to ninth in the NAHL from 15th and mirror the strong five-on-five defensive improvement.
Coach’s Take: “Our power play still has a long way to go. I’m nowhere near happy with it regardless of where we are in the standings. We give up way too many shorthanded opportunities and counted on our goalies way too often. On the flip side, I think our penalty kill has improved. I think we are a better penalty killing team, and that’s something that’s so structured and detailed. With all these new players, it’s a lot for guys that have never killed in a structure like we play. I’ve seen us little by little crawl up and played against a really good power play in Topeka and not give up a goal. There were some huge shot blocks and goaltending. I think our penalty killing has been huge for us and our power play has given us a little life. ”
MOST SURPRISING: Regen Cavanagh (F)
The IceRays traded up for a 5th Round Pick with the Kenai River Brown Bears to snag Regen Cavanagh for the team’s 30-man protected list. The move has paid off in numerous ways. Since his return from a facial injury in training camp, the Chesapeake, Va., native has 14 points in 18 games including 11 in an eight-game December schedule on the way to being named NAHL Forward of the Month for December. The push offensively he provides allows others to help create plays in transition and then in the offensive zone, and when he’s on the ice the team seems to create more plays. Still paired with Mason Krueger and Andy McGlynn as they have been since Cavanagh’s return, the 18-year-old is the only player close to averaging a point-per-game this season.
Coach’s Take: “Regen coming back from the injury was pretty impressive. That was a pretty serious injury so he was a month and a half behind everybody and just the speed of play. He’s found a way to contribute offensively. We weren’t looking to him to be a guy to help get us over the hump but he certainly has been.”
MOST VITAL: Role Players
Despite the individual accolades recently awarded or delved out during the season, the reality is that much of the team’s recent success can be attributed to role players stepping up in specific situations to spark life or provide key plays in crucial moments. As a team, the IceRays have almost doubled their point production from the first quarter, recording 118 points in 15 games (7.87 points per game) while improving numbers across the board for a wide range of players. Seven different players recorded point streaks of three or more games, there were 22 multi-point games among 12 different players, and a majority of those players unnamed are veteran NAHL or junior hockey players. When one or two players stop getting hot, a few others step up and take the reigns. And not all of those big contributors record points. Much of that play are the uncharted numbers from defensive plays and work rates, and there’s no tangible evidence to support that in the NAHL or for much of hockey outside of the new Corsi ratings used in the NHL. In reality, eyes on the game make for the best evaluation, and it’s very hard to point to one person as the reason for the team’s surge back to a .500 record.
Coach’s Take: “There have been some individuals that have stepped up. Brad LeLievre has been unreal. Mason Krueger…Tucker Bender…Just to name a few. Those guys have been models of consistency. There have been no dips in their game. I think they’ve been pros since the start of the season…We don’t think any of these wins have been due to one player. If there’s one thing about this team that anybody can say it’s that, collectively, every night it’s been somebody different…There are guys up front that just every night inspire you. This weekend, Trevor [Heuser] and Tucker and all the defensive guys. They found ways to inspire their team despite their offensive challenges. Brad has been the ultimate captain through this stretch of inspiring his team through hard play. It’s not a coincidence he’s got seven goals. Hopefully, he gets the looks of Division I schools because he deserves it based on how hard he plays. Andy McGlynn is up there in scoring. There are a lot of guys that contribute. One night it’s Carter’s line, the next is Mason’s, and last weekend it was Toby’s line scoring big goals at big times.”
The team has come a long way from the first section of the season, and the youth of the team is no longer becoming a determining factor in the results on the ice. The positioning of the team due to their recent win streak gives a new perspective on the individuals and the team as a whole heading into the second half of the year. More players are finding their grooves. Contributions are coming throughout the lineup. There is no one true hero of this team but more of a combination of various aspects of talent. The IceRays are finding ways to win games both at home and on the road, and combined with a solid defensive base can make them a more difficult team to beat going through the rest of the season. There are aspects of the game that can be improved on, they’re not dominating teams and they’ve yet to play a majority of their games against top-ranked teams. However, they’re winning, and considering the fashion that those wins came in show the potential that this team has to continue their development toward the post-season.
Coach’s Take: “If you would have asked me in September if I would’ve been happy sitting at .500 in January I would have said no. But after getting through Blaine and the first few weeks of October, we were not where I anticipated being as a group. So at that I would’ve been thrilled knowing the development that needs to be done. … Whether we’ve turned the corner officially or not only time will tell. When we have this conversation again at the three-quarter mark then I think we’ll be able to tell. If we’re sitting above .500 that’ll say we’ve turned the corner. If we’re back six games below .500 then we didn’t get it done.”
The four-game, five-day stretch coming out of the holidays was only the beginning of a rigorous schedule heading into the back end of the season. The IceRays finish out a season-high six-game road trip with meetings against the top-two teams in the South Division followed by a home series with Topeka. Following another home series against Amarillo, the IceRays play five more against Lone Star in back-to-back weekends including a three-in-three before traversing back to the Texas Panhandle for two more games against the Bulls following a short trip for a few players to the 2016 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament after the Lone Star set.
If you do your math correctly, that’s 12 of 15 games (including one game against Topeka last weekend) against teams in the top-three spots in the division during the third quarter. The IceRays have yet to win in four games against Wichita Falls this season. They were beaten in two of three at home by the Brahmas. Despite their sweep, Topeka is coming off a 10-game win streak, which ranks second in their junior franchise history. Not to mention the fact that, despite Amarillo being last in the division, the IceRays have split their season series with the Bulls through six meetings.
Thanks to their strong play in the second quarter, the IceRays are in a good position heading into the gauntlet in the next month and one half. They’ve given themselves some room to breathe knowing that Odessa has ten more games against Lone Star and six more against Topeka this season while also having to go on the road on 20 of their final 32 games of the season despite having three games more to play.
If the IceRays can steal some crucial points heading into mid-February, then they could be closer toward their second-straight playoff berth and a little more comfortable at the outset of spring.
“I thought before the season that if we could have 40 points coming out of January seeing how the schedule looked I thought we’d be good. We’ll be a playoff team. Not catch the top-two teams because of how far out ahead they are but solidly in fourth. We’re at 31 points now, so we need nine points in the next six games. It doesn’t sound like much, but you’re playing Wichita Falls, Lone Star and Topeka. That’s going to be a challenge.
“We get through January, and we have five-straight against Lone Star in February. I don’t think February looks any brighter and we finish with six of our last eight games against Wichita Falls. There’s not a month I’m looking forward to. If anything, it’s behind us now. I think we’re going into every weekend believing we can win. The Topeka trip has given us that, and the results in Topeka have allowed us to believe that we can go in now and win hockey games.”
Even with the struggles early in the season, the 2015-16 IceRays are tied for second for the most wins through 31 games in the six years of junior franchise play and are one of three IceRays squads to hit at minimum a .500 record through this point of the season. The other two IceRays teams to record 14 or more wins came from 2011-12 (14-15-2 record) and 2014-15 (16-11-4 record). Ultimately, the IceRays have been rather consistent in the first half of seasons, being no more or less than four wins/losses away from an even winning percentage. Here’s a list of the breakdown:
2010-11: 12-16-3 record, 27 points
2011-12: 14-15-2 record, 30 points
2012-13: 13-13-5 record, 31 points
2013-14: 11-14-6 record, 28 points
2014-15: 16-11-4 record, 36 points
2015-16: 14-14-3 record, 31 points
However, the results of the second half of the season have ultimately determined if the IceRays are playoff bound. In the back section of seasons, the IceRays have earned a positive record in two of their previous five seasons, and both of those seasons resulted in appearances in the Robertson Cup Playoffs following 15 wins in their final 29 games (2012-13 and 2014-15). If the IceRays were to record the same number of wins and also only earn one overtime or shootout loss just like those previous seasons, the IceRays would end up with a 29-27-4 record with 62 points, which ties them with the 2012-13 season for the second-most points in a regular season and just edge that season for the second-best record in junior franchise history and, likely, the first back-to-back years with playoff appearances.
There is no guarantee that this will happen or that the IceRays could even go positive in the back end of the season, but there’s no saying that past precedents cannot be looked at to the potential forecasting of this season’s team.