The New Mexico Mustangs might be an expansion team this season, but Bill Muckalt doesn’t want to be labeled as such.
The Mustangs’ head coach expects great things from his squad, and he won’t use their North American Hockey League (NAHL) newcomer tag as an excuse.
If the first six games are any indication, Muckalt won’t have to.
New Mexico’s home debut couldn’t have been drawn up any better, as the Mustangs swept the visiting Corpus Christi IceRays, 3-1, and, 7-6 in overtime at the Santa Ana Star Center.
“There’s no question it was a big weekend for us,” Muckalt said. “We played some real good teams at the (NAHL) Showcase (Tournament), and it gave us an idea where the bar was set in the NAHL.”
When Muckalt accepted the job last spring, he was excited about being able to build a team from scratch, but he knew he was lagging behind other coaches in recruiting.
“We were late to the dance, so to speak,” Muckalt said. “All the good-looking girls were already dancing. But I think we have some quality players here.”
Jimmy Peplinski, who earned South Division Player of the Week honors after a four-point weekend, leads the Mustangs with seven points, while forward Joe Smereck and defenseman Eli Riddle both have scored a team-high four goals.
Muckalt also praised the play of forward Patrick Anderson and defensemen Kalin Paul and Eric Soderlund during New Mexico’s 3-3 start to the season.
“Everybody’s been helping out,” Muckalt said. “I think the kids are buying into the system, and they realize we have to play well every night to win.”
The Mustangs certainly played well in their Rio Rancho debut, sending the crowd of 1,500 home happy with a 3-1 victory. Kody Blois stopped 24 shots for his first NAHL win.
New Mexico jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the first period Saturday night, only to see the IceRays storm back and tie the game with two third-period goals.
But Riddle assured there would be a sweep with an unassisted power-play goal in overtime, his second game-winner this year.
“When you win a game that was tight, it’s a confidence-builder,” Muckalt said. “We’re a young team, and you want to find ways to win, especially early in the year.”
Muckalt knows nothing will come easy in the NAHL’s South Division. In fact, there isn’t a team with a losing record in the division right now.
That’s why it was important for the expansion team to begin on the right foot.
“It’s a good start for us, and we want to build on that,” Muckalt said.
AMARILLO BULLS: The Bulls earned five of a possible six points against three different divisional teams in as many days. Of Amarillo’s seven games, six have been decided by two goals or less, including a pair of shootouts over the weekend. Zack Smoot recorded the team’s first hat trick in a 7-5 victory Sunday over Corpus Christi.
CORPUS CHRISTI ICE RAYS: While slow starts have hampered the IceRays, they’ve proven to be difficult late in games to put away. Corpus Christi twice erased four-goal deficits over the weekend, but only earned a point for its effort. Sam Cheraso led the comeback attempts with a pair of two-goal outings.
TEXAS TORNADO: Texas goaltender Jake Stafford has his best performance of the year on Friday, stopping all 31 shots in regulation and overtime against Amarillo, but all five Tornado attempts in the shootout came up empty. Donald Olivieri produced a goal and four assists in two narrow home losses to Fairbanks.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: After a 5-1 loss to St. Louis on Friday, Topeka bounced back with a solid 4-2 victory the next night on the Bandits’ rink. Defenseman Chris Bond’s first Junior A goal was the game-winner, while Bob Marx, Jordan Davis and Michael Hill each had a goal and assist. The RoadRunners will try to improve their record in home-openers to 6-1 Friday against Texas.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: The Wildcats, who are the league’s only team with a perfect record, have been superb on the penalty kill. In shootout wins over Fairbanks and Amarillo, they killed off all 11 extra-man advantages and Nick Marsh scored shorthanded. For the season, Wichita Falls has surrendered only two power-play goals on 46 chances, which is second-best in the NAHL behind Traverse City.