Not long ago an afterthought when sizing up the South Division playoff picture in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the Wichita Falls Wildcats are making their case as a legitimate contender for a postseason berth.
With a pair of important divisional wins last weekend over the Texas Tornado and six games remaining, the Wildcats trail the fourth-place Springfield Jr. Blues by just three points in the standings and the third-seeded Tornado by five.
“Our spirits are high,” said Wildcats head coach Mike Flanagan, whose team improved to 17-29-6 on the season. “We’re just going to continue to push ourselves and continue to believe in our abilities.”
The Wildcats opened the weekend with a 3-2 victory on Friday. Chris Leone notched the game-winning goal for Wichita Falls, and Ryan Frost added two assists. Between the pipes, goaltender P.J. Musico made 31 saves.
J.T. Osborn rang up a hat trick the next night and Frost (two goals, two assists), Brian Sheehan (goal, three assists), Dan Gentzler (four assists) and Tyler Lundey (goal, three assists) all fashioned four-point games as the Wildcats downed the Tornado, 9-4. Musico turned aside 36 shots in goal.
“Everyone is putting forth strong individual efforts and paying attention to our defensive concept as a team,” said Flanagan, whose club has rattled off wins in four of its last five games. “We're taking fewer penalties, staying disciplined and playing with a good work ethic. Everyone is having fun and holding themselves accountable.”
Lundey, for one, stepped to the forefront last weekend. With 13 goals for 39 points on the season, the 18-year-old college hopeful from Middleton, Wis., has been a valuable commodity at both ends of the ice.
“He's our best two-way forward,” said Flanagan. “He has good speed, he skates well and has an accurate shot. He definitely has the potential to play Division I hockey.”
So does Sheehan, who’s led the Wildcats offensive charge all season. The 19-year-old from St. Louis is tied for third in league scoring with 56 points on 27 goals (second most in the NAHL).
“Brian is one of our best players and a major offensive weapon,” praised Flanagan. “He has the ability to score goals on any given night and he’s shown improvement in other areas, especially defensively. He's a very fierce competitor.”
The Wildcats’ recent surge can also be attributed to the play of Musico. The 19-year-old from Orange County, Calif., joined the team in January and has won five of his last seven starts.
“He’s played well since his arrival,” said Flanagan, who heard good things about Musico’s promise playing Midget hockey with the LA Selects. “He's an athletic goaltender, not always confining to one particular style. He's always battling and able to compete in all situations.”
Flanagan also likes what he has in netminder Kelly Andrew, a 20-year-old from Calgary.
“The competition between him and P.J. in practice is healthy,” said the coach of his goalie tandem. “They’re supportive of each other and are both important to the success of the team.”
Forwards Brandon Stroud and Bryan Kozlowski have shown tremendous versatility throughout the season, and the leadership of Broderick Browne hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.
“He’s our ‘quote-unquote’ captain right now,” said Flanagan. “He's been good in locker room and does a good job encouraging guys on bench to keep cool in tough situations.”
With that, the Wildcats are also showing plenty of resilience since the losses of blueliners Zach Ledford, a Bentley University (Atlantic Hockey) recruit, and Adam Kuhn - both team captains and impact players - to injury.
“Right now, we only have five defensemen on our active roster, but they’re all playing well and are truly earning their ice time,” said Flanagan. “The guys have stepped up with the opportunities they've been given.”
And the opportunity to play in Wichita Falls, which, since joining the NAHL in 2003-04, has been one of the league’ premier organizations, both in terms of player development and local support, is an experience not to be taken for granted, according to Flanagan.
“It’s a great junior hockey town,” he said. “The fans are very loyal and passionate, it's a fantastic community to live in, and it's a great place for junior players to continue their development.
“Likewise, the fans respond well to the work the players do in the community with their visits to schools, local businesses and other events.”
And the Wildcats want nothing more than to thank those staunch supporters with a strong finish to the regular season and a still-very-possible invite to the Robertson Cup Playoffs.
“Our focus is to finish the season on positive note and play our best hockey,” said Flanagan. “We were 10, 11 points back (of a postseason berth) a month ago, and suddenly now we're three points back, so we've made up a lot of ground.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Zach Smith (Anchorage) put forth a one-goal, two-assist effort in two Avalanche wins over Alexandria. He was also a plus-4 on the weekend.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Forward Zach May (Burnsville, MN) notched the game-winning goal and an assist in the Thunder’s 3-2 win over Bismarck on Friday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Forward Kyle Clay (Henderson, Nev.) potted a goal and two assists in the Blizzard’s 6-2 victory over Alaska on Friday.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: With two victories over Marquette last weekend, the IceDiggers have now won six games in a row. They are five points behind Motor City for the North Division’s fourth and final playoff spot with eight games to play.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Defenseman Ben Danford (Stillwater, Minn.), who played in January’s Sherwood/NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, has committed to Canisius College (Atlantic Hockey) for next season.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: With last weekend off, the Ice Dogs will host Alaska for a two-game series beginning on Friday. Fairbanks is three points ahead of the third-place Avalanche in the West Division standings.
JANESVILLE JETS: Forward Kurt Akers (Glenview, Ill.) rang up a pair of goals in the Jets’ 5-3 loss to Springfield on Saturday.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Defenseman Braden Kinnebrew (Anchorage) connected for a goal and three assists as the Brown Bears went 0-2-1 against Wenatchee.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Forward Collin Saint-Onge (Marquette) picked up a goal and two assists in the Rangers’ 4-3 shootout loss to Alpena on Saturday.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Defenseman Nate Paulsen (La Habra, Calif.) rang up three goals, including the game-winner in Motor City’s 5-2 victory on Saturday, as the Metal Jackets split a two-game set with Traverse City.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: Goaltender Paul Moberg (Forest Lake, Minn.) made 29 saves in regulation and overtime and all five in the shootout as the Outlaws downed St. Louis on Saturday, 3-2.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Defenseman Jake Sloat (Louisville, Colo.), who played in January’s Sherwood/NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, has committed to Bowling Green State University (CCHA) for next season.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Forward Jared Rickord (Skokie, Ill.), a Bentley University (Atlantic Hockey) recruit, connected for three goals as the Jr. Blues skated to a two-game sweep over Janesville.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Forward Chris Ciotti (Romeo, Mich.) potted a pair of goals, including the game-winner, as the Bandits doubled-up North Iowa on Friday, 4-2.
TEXAS TORNADO: Forward Nick Taurence (Tnton, Mich.) registered three assists in a pair of losses to Wichita Falls.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Forward Alec Hagaman (Peoria, Ill.) rang up a goal and three assists as the RoadRunners went 1-0-1 against Owatonna. “Alec performed very well and showed he has an all-around game,” said assistant coach R.J. Enga. “He was good with the puck all weekend.”
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Forward Nick Shkreli (Romeo, Mich.) put home the game-winning goal and a pair of assists in the North Stars’ 6-1 victory over Motor City on Friday.
WENATCHEE WILD: Forward Dajon Mingo (Canton, Mich.), who began the season with Kenai River, recorded a hat trick against his former team in the Wild’s 10-2 triumph over the Brown Bears on Thursday.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Head coach Mike Flanagan is optimistic a number of his players will receive college opportunities. “Interest is warming up now that we’re playing better,” he said. “We’ve had calls from a few schools about players, and a number of schools looking at our players who are (aging out).”