Road Runners off to strong start

By Guy Flaming






Edmonton Off to Strong Start

With the first month of the season now behind them, the
Edmonton Road Runners can reflect and be satisfied with the first stretch in
their 2004-05 campaign. Flipping the
page on the calendar to November also means beginning the second of eight
ten-game segments that the coaching staff has broken the schedule into. After sweeping the Syracuse Crunch in a
two-game series at Rexall Place, the ‘Runners sat atop both their division and
the entire league. Below is a recap of
Edmonton’s first month of games.

 

Against Hamilton

 

With a near capacity crowd of 16,001 boisterous fans behind
them, the Road Runners edged one of their chief rivals, the Hamilton Bulldogs
(MTL), by a 3-2 margin in their home opener.
Joe Cullen recorded the club’s first ever goal in their new digs
but it was J.J. Hunter who stole the spotlight on the night by scoring
both the tying goal and the overtime winner.

 

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played before a crowd like that
before in my life!” Hunter exclaimed in the dressing room afterwards. “Anytime you can win a game in overtime in
front of a crowd like that on opening night it’s special and I think everyone
of us in here is thankful for that.
When that crowd erupted at the beginning of the game it sure got you
going and the legs were pumping the first time you stepped on the ice.”

 

“The crowd probably got us the win,” said defenseman Jeff
Woywitka
. “The adrenaline that
support gave us was unreal; it’s that sixth man for us. It was kind of different coming out here and
seeing all those fans where in Toronto we got maybe 3,000 at the most so it’s
nice to come out here and see the support from a real hockey city.”

 

One night later it would be a much smaller crowd of 7661 and
a less than satisfying 1-0 shutout loss to the Bulldogs that quickly put a
damper on the opening weekend festivities.
The game marked the professional debut of Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers
who was often spectacular in net, but unfortunately the team in front of him
couldn’t buy a goal.

 

“I thought Jeff played really well,” agreed coach Geoff
Ward. “In his first start he gave us an
opportunity to win the hockey game so we couldn’t have asked more of him.”

 

Winger Toby Petersen went down with a charley horse and
pugilist Rocky Thompson was shown the gate early in the evening so the team was
stretched thin for much of the game.

 

“We can’t look at that as the reason why we lost the game,
we lost because we couldn’t generate anything and that’s something we have to
come back and rectify at practice,” said Ward.

 

Over the course of the two games against Hamilton the
‘Runners dinged iron at least six times including golden opportunities for
Jamie Wright and Mike Bishai.

 

“I think everybody is squeezing their stick a bit tight
because it’s the first few games,” signed Bishai. “We need to relax and take a couple games to bear down and get
those pucks past the netminders.”

 

It might be hard to find a positive point in from a game
where the team doesn’t score but some players pointed to a couple of things.

 

“They only scored one goal so I thought defensively we were
pretty solid,” began 21-year-old Doug Lynch. “When we were on the forecheck we did an excellent job and we
hemmed the puck in their zone two or three times and created some awfully good
chances. JD played really well tonight
so we can take a few things before we get right back at it Monday.”

 

Against San Antonio

 

Monday night came and so too did the San Antonio Rampage,
the Florida Panthers affiliate that was considered a preseason favorite by many
pundits. Despite having NHL players
like Jay Bouwmeester and Stephen Weiss in the line up, Edmonton swept both
games against the Rampage.

 

The ‘Runners were lead by Brad Winchester in the
first game. The 6’5 winger was a force
in the contest and set the tone with a goal, a helper and also an impressive
display of knuckle chucking.

 

“I was just trying to get involved and to make plays,”
downplayed Winchester. “We have a lot
of talent and depth but we want to bring the work ethic that defines our team
and that kind of game was what we needed tonight.”

 

It was the first game of the season for Mathieu Roy
and the rearguard recorded a pair of assists and earned a lot of ice time.

 

“He played great for us and I give him a lot of credit; he
worked hard and waited for his chance,” smiled the coach. “Mathieu played a lot of games in the AHL
last year and I thought he looked like he made safe plays, added to the
offensive part of our game and he kept it simple in his own end.”

 

With 40 seconds left in the game San Antonio pulled their netminder
for the extra attacker but couldn’t control play in Edmonton’s end. The puck found its way onto the blade of
Mike Bishai’s stick and he had an opportunity to shoot at the empty net from
his own blueline. Instead, the center
wisely careened the puck off the boards and simply killed time not risking an
icing call.

 

“Well yeah, we knew the goalie was out but with a 4-3 lead I
decided to go up the boards instead of taking that chance, ”I didn’t want to
get the icing and have to risk a late draw in our zone.”

 

The entire scene was eerily reminiscent of the Oilers loss
against the Los Angeles Kings last year where Ryan Smyth opted to try the shot,
missed, and then Edmonton allowed a goal right off the resultant icing. The Oilers allowed another goal a few
seconds later and blew the game, Bishai learned from that experience this time.

 

Also making his first professional appearance was forward Brock
Radunske
who was notified about the opportunity earlier that same day.

 

“I called my dad right away and I told him, he might have
listened to it on the Internet but I’ll give him a call after the game and tell
him how it went,” said the former Michigan State Spartan. “I got a few shifts a period and a little
less in the third but for the first game, I’m pretty happy.”

 

The weather and a local mayoral election in Edmonton that
night were partly to blame for the disappointing crowd of 6011 people. Two nights later the Road Runners were up
against the Boston Red Sox on TV and only drew a crowd of 6335 but the on ice
result was another Road Runner victory.

 

The second game against the Rampage was the beginning of the
Tony Salmelainen show as the speedy winger potted a pair of goals along the way
to Edmonton’s 3-1 win. It would be an
omen of things to come.

 

‘Runners hit the Road

 

The Road Runners stole both games in Winnipeg from the
Manitoba Moose, affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, but then dropped the final
date of the road swing in extra time against Hamilton. Keeping in mind that all three games came in
consecutive days, including an afternoon tilt on the last day, getting five of
six possible points should be considered a great success.

 

Kyle Brodziak made his way into the line up during
the road trip due to illnesses to both Jarret Stoll and Mike Bishai. The rookie made good on his opportunities by
compiling three points in as many games.

 

Edmonton returned home from their sojourn on top of the
league standings but they were about to experience their first losing streak of
the year.

 

Against Houston

 

As detailed in this recent HF
Story
, the match up between the Houston Aeros and the Road Runners featured
the first ever on-ice collision between brothers Joe and Mark Cullen. Although Joe scored in the first game, Mark
had a goal and an assist on the second night and Houston won both contests.

 

In Game 1, bad penalties cost the home squad the game and
prevented the coach from getting any type of effective line rotation going. It was clearly a frustrating night for the
coach.

 

“I thought we took a couple of bad minors after we just
killed some off; those are things that we need to control,” Ward said. “The biggest thing about our team is our
depth and we have to be able to use that to our advantage.”

 

Dan Baum was guilty of taking ill-timed penalties and
was in the box when the eventual game winner was scored.

 

“I’m trying to be aggressive and take the body but I guess
the ref thought I was a little too aggressive,” Baum said. “They scored on the power play and I take
full responsibility for that. There are
times when you can be more aggressive than others, but you have to make sure
the other guy knows that you’re there and that’s what my game’s about. I guess I just got one against me
tonight.”

 

The second game against Houston ended in a 5-4 shootout loss
but featured a record setting four-assist performance by Salmelainen as well as
a three-point night for Stoll. It was
disappointing not to get the win but considering that at one point during the
game the ‘Runners were trailing by a 4-1 margin, Edmonton’s salvaging of a
point isn’t bad.

 

“We got outworked and then we put 20 minutes of pretty good
hockey together to get back in but we have to understand as a team that your
effort is not an on/off switch,” described Ward. “If you play with your effort as an off/on
switch all year long, you’re going to get burned with it. Some night when you mean to switch it on,
it’s just not going to be there.”

 

The fact that the trio of Salmelainen, Stoll and Petersen
was clicking on the night obviously prevented a minor disaster but the coach
knows that one-line teams are not good enough.

 

“(Tony’s) really going right now but we have to find a way
to start generating goals from the other three lines,” Ward said. “It seems like all our scoring is coming
from one line and we need to start spreading that around in order to make us
more difficult to play against.”

 

No Edmonton player managed to score during the shootout, but
Houston was able to pot a pair of goals behind Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers.

 

Attendance at Rexall place rose slightly for the two games,
8006 and 7678, from the previous week but also dropped the season average yet
some more.

 

Against Syracuse

 

Desperately trying to end their three-game slide, the
‘Runners played host to the Syracuse Crunch, affiliate of the Columbus Blue
Jackets, but didn’t treat their guests with much hospitality. In the first game, another low scoring
affair that went to a shootout, Edmonton carried much of the tempo but
struggled on the power play to convert on their plethora of chances.

 

The shootout was exciting for the fans and for the players
as well, especially because the home team was able to escape the night with the
victory. Jarret Stoll captured the win
with a laser beam wrist shot beating Pascal Leclaire on the breakaway.

 

One night later the Road Runners got two point efforts from
Salmelainen, Winchester, Wright and Woywitka to cap off a 4-3 win over the
Crunch. As a bonus, Edmonton enjoyed
the return of Mike Bishai from a week off due to lingering headaches.

 

Help on the way

 

Earlier in the week it was announced that NHL player Raffi
Torres had agreed to a new minor league contract and would be joining the minor
league team for the remainder of the year.
Obviously, that development will mean someone on the current roster
would be knocked out of the rotation in order to make room for the winger who
totaled 20 goals last year as an Oiler.

 

“It’s that type of year so you can’t get frustrated. It’s what is best for the team; he’s a
proven player and he had a full year up with the Oilers so he’s going to do
nothing but help our team,” said Brock Radunske, one of the players most likely
to be affected by Torres’ decision.
“The position that we’re in as young guys, we’re willing to do whatever
it takes to help our team so if there’s another guy coming in and he’s
contributing then that’s all right and we’ll just work hard in practice and if
we get the call we’ll be ready to go.”

 

Players like Radunske, Kyle Brodziak, Simon Ferguson
or even Dan Baum could theoretically find themselves demoted to the ECHL, but
still the Ontario native takes it all in stride.

 

“That’s kind of been the trend over the last couple weeks
around the league,” Radunske continued.
“If I get sent down then I just have to keep working hard and try to
continue to improve. That might be the case; maybe they’ll sign another forward
or something, who knows?”

 

Sure enough, just a couple days later it was made official
that Finnish prospect Jesse Niinimaki would also soon be pulling on an
Edmonton sweater.

 

Injury report

 

Brent Henley was the first player to get nailed by
the injury bug. An awkward collision
caused The Henley Giant to twist and fall directly on one leg, the knee
collapsed and the rearguard has been sidelined with a meniscus contusion ever
since. The official prognosis was for a
7-10 day layoff but Henley knows he got away lucky.

 

“I heard the reaction from the crowd when they were showing
the replay,” he said. “I haven’t seen
it yet and I don’t think I want to.
Guys were coming up to me after the game with a lot of concern so I know
it looked pretty bad out there.”

 

Another player who seems to have dodged a bullet in regards
to healing time is J.J. Hunter.
Hammered from behind by Zenith Komarniski of Syracuse, Hunter injured
his shoulder as he crashed into the end boards. Initial reports suggested Hunter could be out for up to 3 months
but that has been downgraded to 3-4 weeks, a much better scenario because no
surgery is expected for the centre.

 

Dressing room quotes

 

“It was definitely right up there for me. I’m thankful to the good Lord upstairs that
I got the opportunity.”

         
J.J. Hunter after scoring the overtime winner on
opening night.

 

“Guys on our team only played one exhibition game and that’s
tough jumping into a season and a game like this, but once we settled down and
got our feet underneath us, we started playing the game the way it’s supposed
to be played.”

         
Jeff Woywitka explaining that the Road Runners
only played two exhibition games and that most of the players in camp only
skated in one of them compared to most AHL teams that enjoyed half a dozen
preseason tilts.

 

“I didn’t think every penalty was deserved tonight, but I’m
sure every coach is saying that at this time of year.”

         
Coach Geoff Ward’s comment about officiating early in
the season.

 

“It was a clear shot; he came from an angle and took a very
good slap shot. I have to work on my
positioning to be more square to the puck.
My body position was not on the puck so maybe I didn’t cover my angle.”

         
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers taking responsibility
for the lone goal by Marc-Andre Thinel that ruined his shutout in his debut pro
game against Hamilton.

 

“Bucky’s been really helpful with our systems and the guys
have got good intensity on the PK, but we have to play with that emotion on the
PP.”

         
Mike Bishai commenting on the early dominance of
the penalty killers.

 

“We were talking in between periods about how if those
players weren’t getting those chances then we’d be worried but they are and a
couple guys are now overdue. We’re not
worried, we’re disappointed, but that’s how hockey goes.”

         
Doug Lynch about the frequency of Edmonton shots
finding iron instead of twine during the first two weeks.

 

“I think I did pretty good, it’s a tough situation to be in
when you sit for a while, but there’s a few guys that are first year players on
the team and that’s probably going to be the role for the start of the
year. If I can contribute in any way
that I can, I’m glad to do that.”

         
Brock Radunske after getting into the line up
for the first time.

 

“He’s a dynamic player at this level and he’s a guy that can
single-handedly bring fans out of their seats with the things he does on the
ice.”

         
Ward on leading scorer Tony Salmelainen.

 

“My breakaways are something I have to work on, I’ve had a
lot of breakaways but I haven’t been able to score.”

         
Salmelainen, sounding an awful lot like Todd
Marchant.

 

“When we were on the road you could feel how much everyone
wanted to get those wins and tonight we just didn’t have that same intensity.”

         
Kyle Brodziak’s description of the team’s effort
in the first game back after a successful road trip.

 

“It’s my job to go out there and start stuff and I asked a
couple guys but if they don’t want to fight there’s nothing I can do about
that. Rocky’s a guy that’s supposed to
fight too, but he’s also one of big guys on the penalty kill. There’s more to his game and my game then
just fighting but if the fans wait long enough they’ll see what Rock, Henley
and me bring to the table. We have to
worry about the wins first.”

         
Dan Baum when asked about the lack of fisticuffs
in the initial five home games.

 

“Nobody wants to go with him. No one his size will fight him because they
know they’ll take a beating and the bigger guys won’t because if they win then
it’s because they were too big and if they lose, they’ll never live it down.”

         
Brent Henley describing Baum.

 

“I don’t know if it did or if it didn’t, but maybe it made
guys take a look at themselves in the room between periods and we decided as a
group that we needed to step up and battle a bit harder.”

         
Ward’s answer when asked if fights by Baum and Rocky
Thompson against Houston were the catalyst to his club’s comeback from down 4-1
more than halfway through the game.

 

“I’m not enjoying anything here. I’m just feeling bad for us not doing our best for the full 60
minutes. We got a point but I got to
say that I’m not happy with that either.”

         
Salmelainen after setting a franchise record four-point
night in a 5-4 shootout loss to Houston.

 

“Flaming” Hot

 

Tony Salmelainen – Leading the team with 16 points
and a +9 rating after 13 games. The
Finnish dynamo is doing it all, except burying the puck on his breakaway
chances. He’d have 15 goals by now if
he scored on just half of his opportunities.

 

Brad Winchester – There’s no sophomore slump with
this kid! He’s already notched half as
many goals as he did all last year and he’s driving to the net and banging
opponents on a regular basis too. One
of the best players night in and night out so far.

 

Dan Smith – The captain is leading the way in the
same fashion that Jason Smith does with the big club. After taking a puck in the mouth, Smith returned to the game
after missing a couple shifts. He’s not
the prettiest player out there, but he gives nothing less than his very best on
every shift.

 

“Flaming” Not

 

Jarret Stoll – His winger has nearly twice as many
points as he does, but Stoll is leading the team in shots on net. Is he struggling with his aim or just
shooting from bad angles? It doesn’t
matter. Stoll isn’t performing
terribly, but he is underachieving right now.

 

Jeff Woywitka – The smooth skating blueliner can be
dangerous at any given moment, but to either team. One minute Woywitka is leading an odd-man rush up the ice and two
shifts later he is coughing up the puck in his own end. Consistency is the key and Woywitka is
struggling to find it so far.

 

Dan Baum – There’s a fine line between being
aggressive and being undisciplined and Baum has frequently crossed over to the
wrong side. It’s refreshing to see an
Edmonton player stirring the pot, but Baum can get distracted and start running
around while he’s trying to give his team an emotional lift. He’ll learn to pick his spots.

 

Super Stats

 

Brad Winchester and Tony Salmelainen are deadly accurate so
far recording shooting percentages of 16.2 and 15.9 respectively. Even better is the now injured J.J. Hunter
who has four goals on just 17 shots, good for an amazing 23.5 percent accuracy.

 

The Snake Bitten Award goes to Joe Cullen who hasn’t
found the back of the net since his first shot on goal. Cullen’s first shot was also the team’s
first shot and it resulted in a goal on opening night. Since then, Cullen is 0 for 34 shots for a
dismal 2.9 shooting percentage.

 

Not only is Winchester scoring but he’s doing it at the
right times. Of his six lamplighters,
three have come with the man advantage and two have proven to be game winners.

 

The checking line of Nate DiCasmirro, Cullen and Sean
McAslan
are collectively -6 and they have only recorded 3 goals between
them.

 

After 13 games the Road Runners power play is ranked 24th
out of 28 teams while the penalty kill success rate positions the club in 18th
place.

 

Edmonton is second only to Bridgeport for being the most
penalized team in the AHL.

 

64,628 people have attended Road Runner home games so far
this year over the course of eight home dates.
That’s an average of just over 8000 fans per game, good for fourth in
the league behind Manchester (8786), Manitoba (8562) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
(8112). Attendance figures are expected
to climb once the Canadian Football League season is completed later this
month, but will Edmonton’s numbers match those expected in Winnipeg once the
Moose open their new arena?

 

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