By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
Apr. 12, 2016
Playoff season is just getting started, and seven alumni players are hunting for their respective league crowns as the IceRays Alumni Report, Vol. II hits the 25th edition and first of the off-season. Three of the seven players rest in the professional ranks including the National Hockey League, but one player saw his bid at the NCAA Division I National Championship fall one game shy of the title game in heartbreaking fashion last weekend.
The NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday night, and the Anaheim Ducks are one of 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup after claiming the Pacific Division for the fourth consecutive year with a 46-25-11 record and 103 points, which ranks tied for third in the Western Conference. They’ll open the postseason with a best-of-seven series with the Nashville Predators, who placed in the first wild card spot from the Central Division. They’re coming in hot, as is forward Ryan Garbutt (’09-’10), who finishes the season with points in two-straight games. As part of their final road swing, the Ducks took down the Colorado Avalanche 5-3 on Saturday, and the Manitoban slotted his side’s third goal with a snipe while falling forward and encroaching on the net. He followed that up with an assist in Sunday’s 2-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals by helping Corey Perry, who fed Garbutt the night before, score the game’s first (and deciding) goal in the second period. Both are Garbutt’s seventh of the season to close with 14 points through 80 games and two different teams. He’ll make his second bid for the Stanley Cup starting on Friday night.
There’s one weekend left in the American Hockey League (AHL), and there are just two spots to fill for the Calder Cup Playoffs beginning in the last full weekend of April. Unfortunately, IceRays alumni will not be making a run at the title this year with both teams already eliminated from contention. The closer of the two was the Chicago Wolves, who will finish sixth in the Central Division no matter what happens this week. The hope is to finish out strong, and goaltender Pheonix Copley (’10-’11) is banking on that to close a promising 2015-16 campaign. Last Saturday surely helped with a 4-3 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on home ice and 24 saves to go along with it. While it doesn’t break records, the win gives the North Pole, Alaska product two over his last three games after a four-game stretch without a win. Three games remain coming this weekend with the maximum possibility of two that Copley will play starting tonight in Milwaukee.
A bit lower in their respective standings is the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who will also miss a berth into the Calder Cup Playoffs for the sixth-straight season since leaving Philadelphia to initially relocate to Glens Falls, N.Y. for five years. All the while, there is promise for an NHL future with goaltender Anthony Stolarz (’11-’12), who spent considerable time with the Philadelphia Flyers as a backup before rejoining his club and entering right back into the fray. The 22-year-old split his games last weekend and in the process also broke a nasty losing drought of six games to gain some momentum to end the year. He coughed up five goals in Friday’s 6-4 home loss to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers but only allowed one in Saturday’s 4-1 road win against Bridgeport. Since the outset of March Stolarz is 2-4-2 but missed three weeks of games due to his recall. He and the Phantoms also have only three games remaining, and Stolarz could play all three.
The Kelly Cup Playoffs are set to kick off this week, and two alumni teams are set for their run at the ECHL title. The Utah Grizzlies finished the season sixth in the Western Conference with a 39-27-3-3 record and qualify in the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season and 10th in their 11 years of ECHL play. That’s strong company, and defenseman Phil Pietroniro (’11-’13) closes his first professional regular season with two goals and 14 assists for 16 points through 57 games while finishing fourth among rookies on the team in scoring. They’ll take on the third-seed Colorado Eagles, a team the Grizzlies went 7-3-0 against in the regular season, in the opening best-of-seven round. The Grizzlies closed the year winning three of their last four games as well as four of five at home. The Grizzlies and Eagles begin on Thursday in Windsor, Colo.
The other team in the postseason is the South Carolina Stingrays, who added Colton Saucerman (’10-’11) just a couple weeks ago and are already seeing heavy production in his professional debut. The defenseman has four points through his first four professional games including a goal in his first game and three assists over his last two games against the Norfolk Admirals last weekend, which also included his first multi-point game of his career with two helpers to close the year on Friday night. That’s the fastest an IceRays alumni skater has contributed to his team’s professional squad in franchise history, and his Stingrays, who finished second in the Eastern Conference and won the South Division with a 44-18-7-3 record, will take on the Kalamazoo Wings starting Friday at home.
The final team, which did not make the playoffs, was the Evansville IceMen, who finished well out of contention in the Western Conference sitting in 11th place. They did pick up defensemen Mychal Monteith (’10-’12) for the team’s final nine games following the end of his collegiate career at Mercyhurst University. In those nine games, the Toledo, Ohio native earned his first professional assist on April 3 against the Fort Wayne Komets and gained valuable ice time to prepare for tryouts and a possible return in the 2016-17 season. Monteith also finished his senior season with four assists through 30 games as well as 15 points through four seasons.
A National Championship wasn’t in the cards for the University of Denver, however their loss wasn’t all for naught, dropping to the eventual National Champions, the University of North Dakota. Their loss came in the national semifinal last Thursday in a tightly contested battle with the Fighting Hawks by a 4-2 scoreline in heartbreaking fashion. The Pioneers tied the game with 9:09 remaining in the game and then were beat on a rebound with just under one minute left as well as an empty net goal to seal their fate. It was their best result since winning the National Championship over North Dakota in 2005, but it completes the junior season for forward Emil Romig (’12-’13). The strong run ends with three goals and eight assists for 11 points through 36 games and just one game away for a chance at the title. He’ll have one more go next year in his final collegiate season.
The United States Hockey League (USHL) is also gearing up for postseason play, and three of four alumni teams remain in contention for the Clark Cup beginning this week. The Tri-City Storm sits atop the Western Conference with 73 points through their 60-game schedule and look to be poised to make a deep run in the Clark Cup Playoffs this season. However, they’ll have to first take on the reigning Clark Cup Champions, the Sioux Falls Stampede, who also took down the Storm in the Western Conference Finals 3-1 in their best-of-five series last year also as a four-seed. Forward Nico Sturm (’13-’14) closed his first USHL season with 14 goals and 25 assists for 39 points through 57 games while attaining three points over his last four games. Sturm missed out on a title last season with the Austin Bruins by one game and hopes to rectify that result this season. The Storm starts their series on Thursday.
In the other Western Conference matchup, the Waterloo Black Hawks just edged their way into the postseason with a one-point gap ahead of Sioux Falls and Fargo Force, who both tied with 66 points for the final playoff spot. Their 31-24-5 record placed them third in the Western Conference and two points back of their first round opponent, the Lincoln Stars. Forward Ronnie Hein (’13-’14) is in his second run at the Clark Cup after the Black Hawks missed out on the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005-06. Hein enters his first USHL postseason after gaining an assist in his final game of the year last Thursday against Cedar Rapids and picking up 11 points over his last 10 games overall. The Black Hawks begin their journey on Friday.
The third and final team remaining in USHL contention is the Bloomington Thunder, who finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and clinched their first playoff berth in just their second season. Their task is not an easy one, forced to play the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, who won the regular season crown with a league-leading 85 points and 41 wins to their name. After moving to Bloomington early in the season, forward Jake Durflinger (’13-’14) enters his second run at the Clark Cup with 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points earned through 55 games this season but only having one point over his final five games of the season. The Thunder can set the standard under former Robertson Cup Champion Head Coach Dennis Williams beginning on Friday night.
The lone alumni team not to make the playoffs in the USHL is the Sioux City Musketeers, who had a really rough 2015-16 campaign placing last in the league with just 41 points and 20 wins. The season also closes the book on the first USHL campaign for defenseman Logan Gestro (’14-’15), who earned five points through 49 games including his first USHL goal on March 12 against Muskegon and picked up four of his five points during his last nine games. He still remains uncommitted but has only one more year of junior eligibility left to make his push for a NCAA Division I scholarship.
Postseason play is already in full swing for the Western Hockey League (WHL) as the second round of the WHL Playoffs kicks off this week. The Moose Jaw Warriors skated right by their opening round opponents, the Prince Albert Raiders, with a 4-1 series win but are finding themselves in thick water against a perennial power and winners of the Eastern Conference, the Brandon Wheat Kings. They’re trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series and continue with games three and four tonight and tomorrow. Forward Landon Quinney (’14-’15) has played in five of the team’s seven playoff games and looks to help stave off elimination and earn his first major junior playoff points.
Read the IceRays Alumni Report every Tuesday on www.GoIceRays.com and hear the audio version on the IceRays Broadcast Network.
Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.