By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
May 18, 2017
There’s that moment when you just know.
People will tell you to look for it after a few months or during a certain situation, but like knowing when you’re in love there’s no true way to know when your team has that special something. That moment is different for everyone. There’s a journey one must take to get to that instance when everything else blurs for a brief second except the focus of your attention, and the IceRays created many of those moments for its fans and the franchise in what can only be described as a magical season.
A year billed as a rebuilding year with a brand new hockey operations staff including first-year Head Coach Brad Flynn and only six returning players from the previous year not only proved the skeptics wrong but also set the bar for the future.
The 2016-17 season was a tale of two halves, one being very different fro the other. The first portion of the year wasn’t peaches and cream. While the IceRays started with a dramatic 4-3 overtime win in Wichita Falls to open the campaign, they would drop five of their first seven games through the NAHL Showcase with both wins coming in overtime. Through the first 26 games, there were spurts of excitement and memories–Brad Brad Power’s hat-trick and overtime winner on September 22, a shutout victory in the first meeting against Shreveport in front of over 6,000 screaming children on October 27, and David Baskerville’s emotional Pink In The Rink Night and game-winning goal on October 29–but the IceRays maintained right around a .500 record through that portion and falling to a season-worst three games under .500 on Game 26 at 10-13-1-2.
Dec. 10, 2016 is the day the IceRays became what we remember from this season. After a 4-1 defeat the night before at the hands of the Lone Star Brahmas, the offense came alive and not only performed a rare feat of beating the Brahmas on the road but did so with a 6-1 scoreline, the team’s best win against the Brahmas in four years. This was the turning point not only for the current campaign but also for the mentality of the organization.
That was the moment when I knew this team was special.
Through the next 22 games, stemming from that offensive night to Mar. 9, 2017, the IceRays would earn points in 20 of those games, recording a 16-2-2-2 record and propelling themselves from a bubble team to a playoff contender. The 22-game stretch is a franchise best, and in the process the team set a few more franchise marks, including: longest win streak (seven), longest point streak (12), most consecutive goaltender wins (Vomáčka – eight). The team was averaging 3.59 goals per game with eight games scoring five goals or more.
If there was any doubt about the work put in during the first half, this run dispelled any of those worries and reservations.
The IceRays would finish out the rest of the season with a 6-4-1-1 record but hit three more important dates along the way:
March 23 – Clinched their third playoff berth in five seasons.
April 7 – Finish 3rd in the South Division for the first time
April 8 – Set a new junior franchise record for wins (32)
The road brought the IceRays to a 32-19-4-5 record with 73 points, setting more new marks for the junior franchise. In addition to wins, it’s the most points in a single-season and best win percentage (.608) in a single-year. The wins and points are the most since 2006-07 (35 wins, 77 points) in the CHL as well as the fifth-most in franchise history in each category. The team’s win percentage is the second-best in the 19-year franchise history, only trailing the inaugural 1998-99 season (.623).
I joked with Brad Power after the final game of the season that after 13 full days of work both at home and on the road to finish the regular season that the team better make it worth my while with a deep playoff run if I was going to extend that work streak a minimum of two more weeks. Without hesitation, his eyes showed confidence with his reply:
“Oh yeah, buddy. Don’t you worry about that. We’re gonna make a deep run.”
At the time, I didn’t realize how right that statement would be.
The IceRays opened the postseason against Shreveport in the South Division Semifinals. During the regular season, the IceRays earned a 9-2-0-1 record in their first junior franchise series against the Mudbugs after historically not fairing well against a dominant professional franchise. History also didn’t put the IceRays in good territory after earning a 1-4-1 record in their previous two Robertson Cup Playoff appearances while going winless in five-straight since their 2-1 win in Amarillo during the 2013 South Division Semifinals.
Just like the regular season, the IceRays found a way to buck tradition and worked around the stacked numbers not only to take a series lead but sweep the Mudbugs in both games at Hirsch Memorial Coliseum with a 2-0 and 5-3 win, setting up a clinch scenario at the American Bank Center, a place the IceRays have yet to win in four attempts in the postseason. The Mudbugs outshot the IceRays 38-27 and scored the first goal less than two minutes into the game, but the IceRays answered back and forced overtime.
In what could be considered as the biggest single moment in franchise history, Brad Power jammed home a puck through netminder John Roberts following an innocent shot from Josh Tripp to earn the 2-1 overtime win and not only win their first playoff series in junior franchise history but also earn their first playoff sweep in franchise history. The series win was also just the second in franchise history, joining the 2000 WPHL Playoff team that earned their first round win 2-1 over the El Paso Buzzards. It broke the four-game home losing skid in the playoffs and gave Corpus Christi the right to believe.
In the early portion of the season, I had a discussion with Flynn about what it would take to get to the Robertson Cup in Duluth. We both agreed during that conversation that the road in the South Division would have to go through Brahmaland, and that’s exactly where the IceRays were headed next. Not only were the IceRays forced to play against the third-best team in the NAHL but also had to do so with five-straight road games after finding out there would be no true home games at the American Bank Center.
An impossible task the team was ready to tackle in a season filled with obstacles.
The Brahmas edged out a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1 despite a 3-1 lead for the IceRays to begin the third period, and in the process they lost Cole Filler for the next three games. With their first playoff loss of the campaign, the IceRays rallied back and shutout the Brahmas on their own home ice to the tune of a 3-0 win, sending the series to McKinney, Texas level at 1-1. The IceRays played their two home games inside one hour from the NYTEX Sports Centre but didn’t let that affect them in Game 3 with a 4-1 win to push the Brahmas to the brink of elimination. However, they would not go away quietly. After some controversy in Game 3 and 4, the Brahmas forced a decisive Game 5 thanks to a 3-2 overtime win and one of the luckiest bounce sequences in the extra period to seal the win, going from the back glass to a stick to the left of the net to the glove of a teammate on the opposite side and down to the ice for the stuff-in.
Game 5 was what a hockey purist would have loved. Back at the NYTEX Sports Centre, neither team wanted to give a defensive edge, thus creating one of the best goaltending battles of the season for the entire league. Both netminders stopped a combined 46 shots through three periods and sent a scoreless game into overtime. The problem was that the Brahmas developed a reputation for overtime success in the playoffs, and at 4:50 of overtime, a wrist shot by Troy York ended the magical season and closed the book on the 2016-17 IceRays campaign.
As heartbreaking and disappointing as that moment was, there are a few takeaways from that series. First, the IceRays went unbeaten in the playoffs during regulation with a 5-0-3 record, a statistic that happens so rarely that the NAHL doesn’t have records on that situation. The team’s five wins are the most in franchise history for a single-postseason. The franchise has never pushed an opponent to an elimination scenario in the second round before let alone twice. The IceRays were hampered by special teams opportunities, only earning four power plays in five games–they did go 1-for-4 though–compared to 11 for the Brahmas. The IceRays also outscored the Brahmas 12-9 and only lost to them in overtime while the IceRays won by three goals in each of their wins. In addition, the IceRays were the only team to beat the Brahmas, who skated through everyone in Duluth to earn their first Robertson Cup.
So, conceivably, the IceRays were the second-best team in the postseason throughout the NAHL. Technically, by advancement, the IceRays weren’t, but pushing the eventual champions to their limits has to be a strong sense of pride despite the end result. And for those who saw the games live, a first-year head coach heavily outcoached a championship-winning head coach throughout a series that came down to a couple bounces and whistles.
It’s not a consolation prize, but the league has taken notice. This is the start of a new chapter, and all eyes are now on the IceRays.
Individually, the IceRays have new bars set by some new and some veteran personnel. Captain Mason Krueger finished the year with 56 points, which is the most since the 2014-15 season. His final point made him the second player in junior franchise history to reach 100 career points, joining Beau Walker (139) from 2010-13. He also finished his junior career second in all major categories, recording 43 goals and 57 assists for 100 points through 173 games.
Speaking of games, five players now sit in the top-10 for career games played including all three top spots: Trevor Heuser (174), Krueger (173), and Nathan Bryer (172). Brendan Miller (115) sits eighth, and Power (112) sits 10th. On the back end, Tomáš Vomáčka earned a 19-11-6 record with a 2.43 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage through 41 games. His win total is the third-best in a single-season behind Anthony Stolarz (23) and Andrew Lindgren, but his goals-against average and save percentage are now the best in junior franchise history. Cam Burggrabe also clocked in with an 11-6-3 record along with a 2.47 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Combined, it is officially the best goaltending tandem in IceRays history. Brad Flynn takes ownership as the only head coach to earn a positive record in his first season as well as the team’s overall records set throughout the season.
This was never a rebuilding year. It was a year to set the standard, and Flynn and the team did just that.
The third part of second definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for the word “character” is stated as: “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation.” On-ice character is the ability to work through adversity and rise to the occasion in short-term and long-term situations. Off-ice character is generally what we understand to be the composition of a person actions and beliefs.
From the stories that have come out about the players both during and after the season, it’s easy to say this team had both and nearly the perfect combination of on-ice performance with off-ice personality, respect and adaptation to turn the locker room from a cluster of grouped individuals to a seemingly congealed contingent of 23 young men. Many players that I’ve talked to referred to each other as “23 brothers” in one way or another, leaving no teammate on the outside or out casting individuals. This roster worked together, bled together, and rose together to bring what we saw on the outside.
They’ll each have their moment of when they knew. The organization’s members each have their moment. Fans have theirs. I had mine. When it comes down to it, we all had that moment individually, and that tells the story. This team affected everyone one way or another.
That’s what made this season so special and one to remember for a very long time.