The month of November was one to remember for San Antonio hockey fans and a few NHL hopefuls.
Area hockey buffs must feel like they have died and gone to hockey heaven. Triple-A hockey (AHL) has come to the Alamo City neatly gift wrapped in the stylish new SBC Center.
The old hockey venue, the Coliseum, was best known as the site of the annual San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo. The casual fan might have mistaken events at the old arena considering IHL and CHL hockey games resembled rodeo on most nights.
And although the new venue may leave the hockey purist, although they are few and far between in these parts, yearning for the old Coliseum. The new building, flanked by what appears to be chrome plated grain silos, is appropriate to usher in a flashier, more highly skilled brand of hockey play.
If the new façade and accommodations are any indication of things to come, the fans will surely forget the old rodeo on ice quicker than most bull rides.
Hockey at SBC opened with rain, pucks, and the home team falling. Mother nature provided rain, the Rampage a few thunderous checks, but the lightening was in the sticks of the visiting Aeros as they scored early and often to take a 5-2 road win back to Houston. In a game where the Rampage looked to impress their new fans with big hits, the Aeros simply played hockey. But, after a slow start to the season, it now appears the Rampage too are focused on playing the game. It is no coincidence that the individual play of the team members has improved as well.
Here’s a look back at the top performers, underachievers, and surprises from the first month of AHL hockey in the Alamo City:
Center- Serge Payer
Perhaps the teams MVP thus far in this young season, Serge has shown NHL level character, grit, and work ethic. He has been the hardest working player on the ice every night. Despite not being overly big, fast, or skilled, Payer has found a variety of ways to help the team get on the scoreboard. It is highly unlikely he’ll ever score enough to earn a spot on a 1st or 2nd line in the NHL. But if there is a hockey God, Payer will find some time somewhere in the NHL, on a 3rd or 4th line, where he can dig some pucks out of the corners.
In the teams opener, a game where only NHL journeyman Jeff Toms and Payer stood-out, Payer scored a yeoman-like goal. Forechecking with great intensity and stripping a Aero’s player of the puck behind the net. Serge stuffed the puck into the back of the net before the goaltender could even react.
And in the final minutes of play, with the game out of reach, Payer continued to battle and was almost awarded another goal in a late flurry in front of the Houston net. In the middle of the scrum, Payer managed to chip the puck over the fallen goalie. But the goal was disallowed because the net was dislodged prior to the puck crossing the goal line. It was a bad call and the goal should have been allowed.
In the teams next home game, Payer scored a short-handed goal that was ultimately the game winner over the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Consequently, the win was the team’s first home win in San Antonio.
Payer nearly repeated his heroics in the team’s next home game. Late in the 3rd period of a tied game with the Hartford Wolfpack, Payer stole the puck at the Hartford blueline, skated in alone, and narrowly missed on a quality backhand chance. Not to mention earlier in the game Payers hard work resulted in two excellent scoring chances. Although, goals were not scored, Payer did force the opposition into penalties that resulted in power play chances. Serge finally got on the score sheet in the 3rd while his team was short handed by making a perfect pass to teammate Biron for an easy re-direct tally. The goal gave the Rampage a come from behind tie.
To conclude the month, Serge played his usual hard working game against the Milwaukee Admirals. He was held off the score sheet but did play even +/- hockey and was credited with two shots on goal.
Defense- Mathieu Biron
Despite his –2 +/- rating in the home opener, Biron did play a good game. He skated well, took good shots on the power play, was in position, and didn’t take unnecessary chances in the offensive end. He just happened to be on the ice for two of the Aero’s goals. He plays with good composure and compares favorable with the NHL’s Uwe Krupp. Not as physical as you might like for a guy of his size but steady in the defensive end and has displayed some good offensive awareness without compromising defensive responsibility.
In the Hartford Wolfpack game, Biron, while killing an opposition power play, got all the way up ice for an easy re-direct on the goalmouth for an exceptional short-handed tally. He also possesses the ability to make good outlet passes. In the teams tilt with the Admiral, Biron unleashed good outlet passes. One outlet pass in particular sent a teammate in on a breakaway lay-up. The play didn’t result in a goal but it brought the fans to their feet. With a quarter step more quickness and a tad bit more aggression Biron (leading the teams d-men with a +4 rating) could make the jump as high as a 3rd or 4th two-way d-man in the big show.
Defense- Filip Novak
It is only a matter of time and adding some strength before the Budejovice Czech product joins the ranks of the NHL.
In the teams 5-2 loss to the Houston Aeros, Novak somehow managed a +2 rating. He played a quiet, yet consistent game. Always in control, the smallish (he is not 6-1 as listed in the media guide) d-man has the uncanny ability to dictate the pace of the game.
Controlling his man with excellent positioning he often times takes the puck away from opposing forwards with his lightning quick hands and then effectively sets-up the transition game. His hockey sense, patience, vision and team play is very similar to Sergei Zubov of the Dallas Stars. It is unlikely that Novak will develop the same offensive ability, but his defensive play could surpass the sturdy Russian. Indicative of his steady and somewhat unspectacular play, he was held off the score sheet in the teams win over Cincinnati but led all defensemen with another +2 rating. Against the Wolfpack, Novak not only played an effective defensive game but also jumped confidently into the offensive play.
RW- Denis Shvidki
The most talented offensive prospect in San Antonio is Denis Shvidki. Denis looked every bit worthy of that distinction in the season home opener. With the Rampage on a power play he showed great patience with the puck on the half boards drawing two Aeros defenders to him. He managed to quickly pass the puck cross-ice to the left point. There, Andy Rierson, in one motion, passed the puck as quickly as it came to him back across the ice to the right of the net. Teammate Jeff Toms was waiting to shoot the puck into a half empty net. Tic-Tac-Goal.
At another point during the game Shvidki gained control of a lose puck behind the Houston net. He shielded a well-positioned defender away from the puck and then maneuvered, what seemed effortlessly, out from behind the net and walk in front of the goal for a great scoring chance. He shot the puck high and wide. On his game Denis shows flashes of tremendous skill, speed, puck control, balance, and hockey skill.
In the teams first home win over the Mighty Ducks of Cincinnati, Shvidki did what he was supposed to do by leading the offense with two points. However, he came away from the game with an even +/- rating. It would appear that Shvidki is type of player that has the ability to let the game come to him. But as easily as the game may come it also seems to pass him by. Perhaps he is nursing an injury, but so far this season Shvidki has rarely carried the action, which a player with his skills should.
Being more assertive and finding more chances to get off his NHL caliber wrist shot will help get Shvidki back in a Florida Panther uniform.
LW- Josh Olson
Blessed with size, speed, and tremendous reach the 5th ranked Florida Panther prospect, according to HF, Josh Olson was sent down to make room for center Byron Ritchie. Playing with some spunk, (dropping the gloves with Kyle Wanvig of the Houston Aero’s in the home opener) but having a difficult time getting involved in the offense, Josh could use the time in the ECHL to develop his game. The jury is still out considering power wings take longer to develop.
Defense- Kyle Rossiter
With size, aggressive, abrasive, good speed, and quickness, what else could you ask for in an NHL defensemen?
Start with positioning and end with decision-making. All the talent in the world will never translate to wins if it is not applied meaningfully. Such is the case with big # 24. However, defensemen take longer to develop than their offensive counterparts so there is still time.
But Kyle must keep his game simple at this stage of his development. In the home opener he was guilty of trying to do too much. Whether it was trying to make the big hit or keeping the puck in the offensive zone, Kyle continually was getting caught out of position or taking bad penalties. If he learns with experience he could prove to be a rugged 6th or 7th defensemen in the NHL because the physical tools are there.
RW- David Morisett
The first thing you notice with David is his speed. The problem has been that speed is the 2nd and 3rd thing you notice as well. In fact, through November, Morisett was virtually non-existent.
With his speed he gets on the opposition quickly, however he needs to do it consistently and needs to force turnovers. Also, he needs to use his speed to open-up offense for himself and teammates like he finally did Nov.26 versus the visiting Milwaukee Admirals.
On one particular play he gained control of the puck near his own blue line. He then carried the puck up ice. Noticing that the D-men where playing well off him, Morisett calmly surveyed the ice and recognized a streaking Mike Green. With a nifty backhand, cross-ice pass, Morisett sent Green in for a mini-breakaway goal. He later stole a puck in the opposition’s defense zone and skated in alone for a chance of his own. But the backhanded chance was played well by the goaltender and the save was made.
He earned a well-deserved 3rd star. If he can learn to effectively use his speed consistently, as he did in the aforementioned game, he will find his way to a 3rd or 4th line somewhere in the NHL.
Center- Mike Green
Speaking of earning stars, the surprise player of the month would have to be Mike Green. In the same game versus Milwaukee, Green scored a hat trick against the AHL’s hottest goalie in Jan Lasak.
His 1st career hat trick earned him the 1st star of the game. Listed at only 5-11 in the media guide he plays much bigger, though he will never be confused with a power forward. Always involved in the play Green has played +1 hockey for a team that struggled badly the first 10+ games of the season. There is no reason to believe Green won’t continue to play solid hockey.
What a difference a month can make.
Kudos to John ‘Torch’ Torchetti and his staff. They turned the team around that had started the season off poorly into a competitive and hardworking group. But perhaps most importantly the team is fun to watch and many of the players have legitimate shots at playing in the NHL.
From a fans stand point San Antonio might not ever be hockey heaven, but the new SBC Center and the AHL Rampage are certainly a crossover in the right direction.