When the Texas Tornado take to the ice this weekend, its lineup will look much different than it did just a few weeks ago.
The Tornado, which has had a reputation of pulling off blockbuster trades at the NAHL trading deadline, made several moves in order to improve its team as it heads towards the NAHL playoffs.
Even through the Tornado spent much of the first half of the season in first place in the South Division and are currently battling for one of the top-two seeds, head coach Tony Curtale felt like the team was not where it needed to be.
“Something needed to be done,” said Curtale. “We’ve played very well in stretches, but in order to have success in the playoffs, you need a certain type of player. I felt we were missing a few components. Our team defense had to get better, our attitude and effort had to get better, and I think we addressed all those areas.”
If there’s any team in the NAHL that knows success in the playoffs, it’s the Tornado. Texas has made the playoffs in each of its 10 seasons, having won four Robertson Cups in that span - all under Curtale’s watch. The only teams in NAHL history with four or more Robertson Cups besides the Tornado are the Paddock Pools Saints and the Compuware Ambassadors.
Playoff success is something the Tornado is familiar with and take pride in, which is why it comes as no surprise that Curtale made the moves he thought were necessary.
“One of the encouraging things about the players we acquired is that not only will they help us now, but also for our future,” said Curtale. “Yes, we want to have success in the playoffs, but we also want to be able to have a team next season that will contend.”
The Tornado acquired two veterans in forward Seth Johnson, 20, and defenseman Tom Rizzardo, 20, from Bismarck. In Johnson and Rizzardo, the Tornado gets two defensive-minded players who are also junior hockey veterans. Johnson spent time this season with Alaska and Janesville before ending up in Bismarck.
"Johnson is a kid who has some offensive talent and can score. However, he plays with an edge and grit, is not afraid to mix it up and is defensive-minded," said Curtale.
Rizzardo is no stranger to hockey in North Texas, having grown up and developed in the Dallas area and is from Highland Village. Rizzardo brings size and shock-blocking ability.
"Tom is a kid I’ve seen grown up and develop into a very good NAHL defenseman," said Curtale. "Again, he’s another player who plays with a defense-first mentality, but also has that offensive upside that makes him a threat."
The Tornado also acquired defenseman Walker Hyland, 19, from the Fresno Monsters.
"Walker is a very responsible and swift skating defenseman who also has an offensive upside," said Curtale. "I think he helps us in both areas, but, as we look to solidify our defense, he was the type of player we needed to add."
Hyland put up some great numbers while in Fresno this season. He registered nine goals, which ranks tied for third among defensemen in the NAHL, and 15 assists for 24 points.
The Tornado also added forwards Brett Hebel, 18, from the Alexandria Blizzard and Jimmy Murray, 19, from the Fargo Force of the USHL.
“We’re very intrigued by both players for a variety of reasons,” said Curtale. “Both are young and both have a tremendous offensive upside. Hebel is a bigger kid who has a great shot and Murray is a smaller guy with some of the best speed I’ve seen in the long time. We think both have the ability to be key players for us the remainder of this season and in the future.”
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
AMARILLO BULLS: The Bulls split a weekend home series with the New Mexico Mustangs and remain in a tie for second place in the South Division with the Texas Tornado. On Friday night, the Bulls won 2-1 and got the game-winning goal from Sean Keane. Nikifor Sczcerba’s 28 saves were enough for his 21st win of the year. In Saturday’s 4-2 loss, Cody Freeman and Zack Smoot scored, but the Bulls struggled to find the back of the net despite 52 shots on goal. The Bulls made a couple of moves at the trading deadline, sending goaltender Steven Bolton to Traverse City in exchange for defenseman Alexander Wiese. The Bulls also acquired Eric Millisor from the USHL. Amarillo will travel to Wichita Falls for road games on Wednesdayand Friday before heading to Texas for a second-place showdown with the Tornado on Saturday.
CORPUS CHRISTI ICERAYS: The IceRays fell further behind the fourth and final playoff spot after being swept three straight games in Topeka last weekend. Corpus Christi is now eight points out of the playoff spot with 13 games remaining. The ‘Rays were close on Thursday and Friday, but fell by identical 5-3 scores. On Sunday, the ‘Rays were blanked 6-0 by the RoadRunners. Forward Beau Walker had five points on the weekend, including three goals. Defenseman Jason Souva had three points on the weekend, including two power-play goals on Thursday. Corpus Christi’s 1,790 penalty minutes thus far is the most for any NAHL team since the 2006-07 season. Eight of Corpus Christi’s remaining 13 games will be played at home at the American Bank Center, including two on Thursday and Friday against Texas.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: The Mustangs dropped two of three road games last week, but did pick up their second road win of the season with a 4-2 Saturday night win in Amarillo. The Mustangs fell 4-3 in Texas on Thursday night, but Christian Johnson scored his first career goal. In Amarillo, New Mexico got an incredible performance in goal from Marco Wieser, who stopped 87 of 91 Bulls shots during the weekend, including 50 in a 4-2 win on Saturday. Evan Johnson and Brad Wilhelm each had a goal and assist in the win for the Mustangs. New Mexico opens a four-game homestand this weekend with three straight games against division-leading Topeka in the RoadRunners’ only trip to the Land of Enchantment this season.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: With three wins at home over the Corpus Christi IceRays, the Topeka RoadRunners increased their lead in the South Division over Amarillo and Texas to a season-high 10 points. Alaska-Fairbanks recruit Michael Hill struck for five goals during the three-game sweep and was named as NAHL South Division Player of the Week. On Thursday, Hill recorded a hat trick, including the game-winning goal, in a 5-3 victory. The next night he notched another goal as the RoadRunners bested the IceRays, 5-3. Hill wrapped up his weekend with a one-tally effort on Saturday - a 6-0 win. With 23 saves in Saturday’s 6-0 win, goaltender Rasmus Tirronen recorded his second shutout in his last three starts. Tirronen has won his last six starts dating back to Jan. 7. The RoadRunners will make their only trip of the season to New Mexico this season for three games against the Mustangs this weekend.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: The Wildcats won their only game of the weekend - a 4-2 home win on Saturday against the visiting Texas Tornado. The win was the Wildcats first over Texas this season. Dakota Klecha and Drew Allen each had a goal and an assist in the win, and goaltender Tyler Green made 35 saves. The win gave the Wildcats some breathing room for the fourth and final playoff spot as they now enjoy an eight-point lead over fifth-place Corpus Christi. The Wildcats scheduled game at Texas on Friday night was postponed because of inclement weather. No makeup date has been announced. The Wildcats continue their current seven-game homestand this weekend with games on Wednesday and Friday against the visiting Amarillo Bulls.