When reflecting on his first season in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), New Mexico Mustangs owner and governor Ken Dennis says he’s learned a lot.
“I think this experience has been a great one so far for the entire staff, coaches and players,” said Dennis. “I believe we’ve built the foundation for what’s going to be a competitive and entertaining team for many years to come.”
Dennis said one of the biggest current challenges remains getting fans to the Santa Ana Star Center. The multi-purpose arena in Rio Rancho, N.M., is located just on the outskirts of the Albuquerque. Opened in 2006, the 6,000-seat arena is one of the largest and nicest in the entire league and home to the Mustangs.
However the challenge for Dennis and the Mustangs remains getting people to the games.
“Once we get a fan to a game, we know they’ll have a great time, enjoy themselves, enjoy the product and come back,” he said. “The challenge for us remains reaching out and connecting to the over 900,000 residents in the Albuquerque area. It can be done and we’re trying to find out the best ways to do it.”
One thing that isn’t a challenge and a bright spot for Dennis is the common philosophy of the NAHL.
“Once we step onto that ice, we battle, but when the game is over, all the owners and coaches realize that we’re in this for the common good,” said Dennis. “We all want to help young men achieve their goals and dreams so that we can continue the on-going tradition of watching our players move onto the NCAA and the NHL. I think the way the league - particularly our division - is structured allow us a chance to be successful.”
One of the biggest steps in the learning process for the Mustangs was the competition level in the NAHL, particularly in the South Division.
“I think our biggest challenge was understanding the level of competition in the South Division,” said Dennis.
With their recent win over the Texas Tornado in front of their second-largest home crowd of the season last Saturday, the Mustangs can lay claim to defeating every team in the always-tough South Division at least once this season.
“When you’re an expansion team that’s made up primarily of players with no NAHL experience, you’re going to take your lumps,” remarked Dennis. “But, we’ve beaten each team at least once in our division this season and the majority of our wins have come in the last two months, which tells you that our young players are learning and getting better with experience.”
Dennis is also quick to give plenty of accolades to his head coach, Bill Muckalt. Muckalt, who’s in his first season coaching in the NAHL, was a standout forward at the University of Michigan, winning two NCAA championships. Following a six-year career and 256 games in the NHL, Muckalt turned to coaching.
“I think Bill has done a great job with this team and has worked very hard to try and not only develop our players, but prepare them to play at this level,” said Dennis. “We’ll have 19 players who could return to next year’s roster and Bill has worked tireless to get us what we feel is a tremendous recruiting class for next season.”
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
AMARILLO BULLS: The Bulls put a strangle hold on second place in the South Division with three wins last week. On Thursday, Amarillo got 32 saves from Nikifor Szczerba in a 3-2 win in Frisco against the Texas Tornado. It marked the fourth straight time Amarillo has defeated the Tornado this season. The win also moved the Bulls into sole possession of second place over Texas in the South Division. Forward Brooks Behling scored his first game-winning goal of the season in the win. On Sunday, the Bulls traveled to Corpus Christi to face the IceRays, where Amarillo came away with a convincing 5-1 win. Defenseman Dan McDougall and forwards Matt Johnson and Zack Smoot all had multi-point nights. On Monday, Johnson’s three assists propelled the Bulls to a 4-1 win in Corpus Christi. The Bulls head home to host New Mexico on Friday and division-leading Topeka on Saturday and Sunday.
CORPUS CHRISTI ICERAYS: The IceRays returned to action on Sunday, dropping a 5-1 decision at home to the Amarillo Bulls, then falling a night later on Monday, 4-1. Defenseman Colton Saucerman scored the lone goal for Corpus Christi on Sunday in the loss, which came just 49 seconds into the game. Goaltender Mason Murovich came in for a relief appearance on Sunday and stopped all 11 shots that came his way. On Monday, Murovich made 40 saves in the loss. Forward Beau Walker had his four-game point streak snapped on Sunday, but still leads the IceRays in scoring with 54 points. With four, regular-season home games remaining, the IceRays remain second in the NAHL in attendance, averaging 3,030 fans per game. This week, the IceRays continue their homestand against Texas on Thursday and Friday.
TEXAS TORNADO: The Tornado went 1-1-1 in three games last week and remains in third place in the South Division. On Thursday, the Tornado was edged by the Bulls, 3-2. It marked the sevent straight Tornado game that had been decided by two goals or less. Jack Prince and Taylor Herndon collected goals in the loss. A night later, the Tornado scored a season-high nine goals in a 9-4 road win over New Mexico. Defenseman Ralfs Freibergs had four points and forward JD Howard collected the fourth hat trick this season by a Tornado player. Marc Biggs, Nate Sliwinski, Jackson Leef, Jimmy Murray and Prince also had multi-point nights. A night later, a late goal from Mico Solorzano sent the game into overtime, but the Tornado fell for the first time all season to the Mustangs, 3-2. The Tornado has a challenging week ahead with two road games in Corpus Christi on Thursday and Friday, followed by a quick turnaround game at home against Wichita Falls at noon on Saturday.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: The RoadRunners made it seven wins in a row with a weekend sweep at home over the Wichita Falls Wildcats. Topeka has the best record in the NAHL and the largest lead of any division leader (12 points) in the NAHL. Forward Nate Milam struck for two goals and two assists in the sweep and was named NAHL South Division Player of the Week. On Thursday, Milam put home a goal and assisted on Brian Christie’s game-winning marker in a 5-0 victory. The next night, he put forth another one-goal, one-assist effort as the RoadRunners downed the Wildcats, 4-3. In Thursday’s 5-0 blanking of the Wildcats, goaltender Rasmus Tirronen stopped all 19 shots for his fifth shutout of the season. With just seven games remaining, the RoadRunners look to try and lock up the division this weekend with three road games: Friday in Wichita Falls and Saturday and Sunday in Amarillo.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: The Wildcats were swept on the road against the first-place Topeka RoadRunners last weekend, but maintain a firm hold on the fourth and final playoff spot, nine points ahead of Corpus Christi. After a 5-0 loss on Thursday, the Wildcats gave the RoadRunners all they could handle on Friday. Goals from Mikhail Sentyurin and Jason McAloon gave the Wildcats a 2-0 lead in the first period. After four straight Topeka goals, Ryan Frost scored to make it 4-3, but the late comeback bid fell short despite 31 saves from goaltender Tyler Green and two assists from Will Suter. The Wildcats, who host Topeka on Friday night, are just 0-5-1 against the RoadRunners this season. Forward Tanner Fahlstedt has scored the last two game-winning goals for the Wildcats, who are just 1-6-0 in their last seven games. After hosting Topeka Friday night, the Wildcats travel to Frisco for an noon game on Saturday against the Tornado.