Last season, the IceRays were in a very similar scenario heading into the postseason. They were squaring off against the Shreveport Mudbugs as the lower seed, and were seen by most as the underdogs in a matchup against an opponent who had taken the league by storm.
Despite being written off by many, the IceRays silenced their critics and swept Shreveport, advancing to the Division Finals for the first time in junior franchise history. They managed to win both road games in regulation. Not only do they have history on their side from last year, but also from last month. The IceRays’ last road trip of the regular season was to Shreveport, where they swept the Mudbugs and clinched a berth in this year’s playoffs.
There’s no doubting the IceRays have given the Mudbugs difficulties over the last couple of seasons, probably more so than any other opponent. However, the same can be said of the contrary.
While the IceRays’ most recent excursion to George’s Pond has them feeling confident heading into this matchup, there have been several times this season when the Bugs have blown the Rays out. On the campaign, the Rays have an impressive 6-4-2 record against them. Only Lone Star has managed a better winning percentage against the league’s number two team heading into the postseason. However, three of the Rays’ four regulation defeats against Shreveport have been by four goals or more.
Overall, the IceRays’ head-to-head goal differential clocked out at 29-to-39. A quarter of the regular season matchups were utterly dominated by the Mudbugs, while the remainder of them were either closely contested defeats or IceRays victories. If this playoff round is reflective of that, we will likely see a series that goes the distance between two teams who have already developed quite a rivalry. But, as has been proven on innumerable occasions, anything can happen in the playoffs. A new season begins tonight, and previous head-to-head stats are all but irrelevant.
IceRays leading scorer Rylee St. Onge (50 GP, 20 G, 28 A, 48 P) will be making his return to the lineup just in time for the playoffs. The St. Catharines, Ontario native took precautions against Lone Star and missed out on Pack the House Weekend, opting to simply recover and rest for postseason action. The Rays certainly could’ve used his goal-scoring prowess and his high-end offensive skills last Saturday night when they were shut out by Mitchell Gibson and the Brahmas, but the game had no severe implications and St. Onge’s recovery was paramount. The 20-year-old has played in every game against the Mudbugs this season, and leads the team in head-to-head scoring with 12 points (6 G, 6 A) in as many games. He was named the South Division 2nd Star of the Week after the Rays’ last visit to the Bug Pond.
Veltri at his Best
The IceRays’ most important player throughout the playoffs, without a doubt, will be their goaltender. Chad Veltri’s been playing some of his best hockey of late, backstopping the Rays to a road sweep over the Bugs and earning a regulation shutout in a loss against Lone Star on Pack the House Night. When the Rays last visited Shreveport, Veltri made 53 of a possible 54 saves in what was easily one of his best games of the campaign, and he finished the season at second in the NAHL with a .930 save percentage. Last year, it was Tomáš Vomáčka who stonewalled the Mudbugs and thwarted their offensive production in the first round. Now, Veltri will be seeking to take his place. There is no reason to believe he can’t do the same thing. In five games played against Shreveport, Veltri has posted a remarkable 4-1-0 record, a 2.13 goals against average and a .945 save percentage.