While the San Antonio Rampage are playing some really good hockey as of late – going 7-3-0-0 in their last 10 games – their opening act was quite the opposite. After getting their first win of the year on Oct. 15, things went south for the Phoenix affiliate. The Rampage went 0-16-0-1 over the next 17 games (Oct. 18 – Nov. 29), which relegated them to the bottom of the AHL.
“The first seven games to be honest, I thought we were good,” explained San Antonio head coach Greg Ireland. “That is in terms of our work ethic and the way we were competing. I really felt we should have been 7-0 or 6-1. It just seemed like everything that could go against us did and we couldn’t find a way to score goals. We outbattled teams, outchanced them, and outcompeted them. But here we were, 1-6.”
Not only was the team losing, but then things took a turn for the worse during the drought.
“Then, we couldn’t do anything right,” Ireland added. “We went into a funk. We couldn’t score and weren’t working as hard. Some of that came from players who were overwhelmed because they were playing at a higher level and couldn’t handle it. We also had some veteran guys who weren’t performing and not getting it done.”
With just over a month of heartbreak and headaches, the Rampage never lost hope. While Ireland admitted that the team’s overall confidence was weak and that his squad was frustrated beyond belief, they refused to quit.
“I found we really had a good group of guys,” he said. “They really rallied and pulled it together.”
Opportunity was there and the team started to see a change for the better. While they still weren’t getting the bounces or goals they wanted, San Antonio forged ahead until those “small” things started to go their way. Finally, things started to align when they snapped the losing stretch with a 3-0 win over the Syracuse Crunch on Dec. 4.
With a restocked roster and with the momentum in their favor, San Antonio has improved their overall record to 12-23-0-1. They still sit last in the West Division and are six points off the Quad City Rapids. They are also second to last in the Western Conference; only the Rochester Americans have a worse record.
One of the bigger problems San Antonio had to deal with was a lack of depth upfront. Before the year started, the Rampage had three quality pivots penciled in as starters. But when the season kicked off, all three were gone. Joel Perrault was lost to injury before camp and Mike Zigomanis was traded to Pittsburgh. Then some seven games later, Garth Murray was recalled to Phoenix.
To add to their center problems, the team also lost David Spina to injury.
However, even as things were off-kilter, rookies Chad Kolarik and Brett MacLean stepped up to fill the void. Currently, both players are tied for the team lead in scoring with 19 points (both with 10 goals, 9 assists). While MacLean has produced those numbers in 33 games and is a plus-4, Kolarik has seen two more games and is a minus-9.
Their performances have impressed the coaching staff. MacLean’s success comes from the fact that he’s bought into the system. While the organization still wants to improve his stride and overall strength, they’re happy with his response. As for Kolarik, he initially got off to a bit of a slower start. They anticipated he could rocket out of the gate because he had so much success in the playoffs last year, but it took some time for him to get his game going.
While the pair of rookies were flourishing for the Rampage and with the team making little progress, the organization looked to bring in some much needed help.
During the first week of November, Phoenix traded away defenseman Drew Fata to the Ottawa Senators for Alexander Nikulin. The Russian center was assigned to San Antonio and immediately helped fill a void up the middle. Then a couple weeks later, the club acquired center Wyatt Smith from Tampa Bay for future considerations. Almost another week later, the club pulled the trigger again, sending defenseman prospect Logan Stephenson to Anaheim for Joakim Lindstrom. Another centerman, Lindstrom added immediate pop, picking up a goal and an assist in three games. It didn’t take much time or the newest Rampage forward to be recalled by the Coyotes, but in his stead Murray returned. The final piece of the pivot puzzle came into place as Perrault returned from injury at the start of December. Winger Spina followed Perrault back into action.
It has taken some time for Nikulin and Murray to get things going offensively, but Smith and Perrault have been good for almost a point a night. Wingers Spina and Jeff Hoggan are starting to ramp up their production. Hoggan is coming off his best month to date and is riding a four-game point streak and has 18 points (12 goals, 6 assists) in 35 games. Spina also ended 2008 strong and kicked off this year with a hat trick against Lake Erie on Jan. 1. Over the last five games, he’s chipped in nine points (5 goals, 4 assists). Throughout 19 games, the Arizona native has a total of 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) 14 penalty minutes and is a plus-4.
While he may not rack up the points, one player who’s making a lot of noise is Steven Goertzen. Noted as a real physical checking winger, who can provide some pop, Ireland feels the former Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick is knocking on the door and Phoenix is taking note. To date, he has 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) and 55 penalty minutes in 34 contests.
As for the Coyotes other prospect pickup over the summer, Alex Bourret has been rather quiet so far. After changing organizations for third time in as many years, Bourret has taken some time to adjust to the Coyotes systems. He’s had his highs and lows, but the Rampage anticipate that the 22-year-old will be a big factor in the coming months. To date, he as 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists) in 28 contests.
Unlike last season, where the Rampage had three or four veterans on defense, this year’s defensive corps is very young. The oldest member is Ryan Lannon (26) and they have three players aged 21. The group’s average age is 23 years old. They’re talented, but the lack of overall the experience has led to some of the pain early on this year.
David Schlemko has caught a lot of people’s attention. He’s never had a problem on the offensive end, but he’s picked his defensive zone coverage up tremendously. Schlemko still has tons of room to improve, but his presence has helped San Antonio piece the season back together. The second-year prospect out of Medicine Hat in the WHL currently leads all defensemen in scoring with 17 points (3 goals, 14 assists) in 33 games. He’s also a minus-6 and has 8 penalty minutes on the year.
Matt Jones made his way back down to the minors this season after spending most of the 2007-08 season with the Coyotes. While he gained knowledge being up with the parent club last year, he did more sitting than playing. It’s been a good move to have him down with the Rampage. His most glaring stat would be his team leading minus-28. To his credit, the fourth year defenseman took on a lot of responsibility from the start. He played against some of best lines in the league and tried to help out his netminders in the process. But a culmination of things (including trying to do too much at times) sent his overall plus/minus on a downward spiral. Though as Ireland has stated, Jones has been a “tremendous” piece of the team, a complete workhorse, and great leader.
Dylan Reese and Sean Sullivan are two other blueliners that took an increased role with the team and have stepped out. Reese has struggled to play within his means at times, but he doesn’t quit and continues to look to round out his game. On the other hand, Sullivan has been the team’s top defender over the last 15 games. He got off to shaky start, but has settled in nicely for the Rampage with 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists) in 28 games. Collectively, the two have seen increased time on areas like the power play and they’ve responded well.
Jonas Ahnelov joined the club a little late because he was injured in the Coyotes preseason camp. Once he got back to work, he was a little rusty, running around and chasing the opposition. After getting sometime to adjust, he’s starting to become one of the team’s best defensive defensemen.
After starting the season with the Arizona Sundogs in the CHL, Sean Zimmerman made his way out to San Antonio when the franchise traded other rearguards. He has yet to dress for the Rampage.
Despite being short upfront and young on the blueline, goaltending was really San Antonio’s Achilles heel early on. The duo of Josh Tordjman and Al Montoya struggled for most of the first quarter of the season. Times were rough for the team. But both netminders struggled finding a rhythm on the ice on their own, which made a turnaround seem so far away at times.
But things got better. And it was Tordjman who helped lead the team out of darkness. In the month of December alone, he went 9-2-0 (including three shutouts) and posted a 1.90 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage. Also during the month, he was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Dec. 7. Seeing that Tordjman has the hot hand, the Rampage have been sticking with him. Minus a brief call-up to Phoenix to end out the year, he’ll be back and ready to go.
Even with Tordjman’s efforts as of late, Montoya might have just earned himself a second start with a solid outing against Lake Erie on Jan. 1. After posting a horrendous 1-11-0 record, a 3.96 goals-against-average and a .864 save percentage, he finally got the start against the Monsters (as Tordjman was on recall to Phoenix). He was solid in net stopping 24 of 26 shots as the Rampage cruised to a 6-2 victory. Whether or not the team turns to Montoya following the win, he’s been working hard to get his game back on track. While he’s only had practice to improve, finally getting this big win might help that process along.
The Rampage recently recalled Joel Gistedt, but it’s only to fill-in as the backup. He did see the last 20 minutes of action in a 5-1 loss to Quad City on Nov. 8. The Swede is far from getting any action with San Antonio as he’s been having his troubles adjusting with the Sundogs in the CHL. There, he’s complied a 4-8-0 record, a 4.52 goals-against-average and a .851 save percentage.
It’s amazing what a couple changes to your roster can do. That has happened because Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney and Assistant General Manager Brad Treliving have been in constant contact with the Rampage coaching staff. The days where the sole focus of the organization was at the top are long gone. From early on, Maloney pledged to develop and good feeder system and he’s held true to his word.
While the start was anything but brilliant, credit definitely goes to the coaching staff, players, and responsive management team. Now, they have too much momentum and a lot of good things going for them not to improve.