South Report: Incentives remain as IceRays close season
by Alex Kyrias | NAHL.com
One of the newest members of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the Corpus Christi IceRays made a huge impact to begin their history in the NAHL.
First came the transition into the NAHL and the introduction of players who hopefully one day would be the future of hockey. Immediately, the IceRays raised some eyebrows at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., to start the season, going 3-1. Three wins in four games just two weeks later and a 5-4 record in the month of November had the IceRays creeping towards the top of the South Division standings.
However, a 7-16-1 record in December, January and February put the IceRays behind the 8-ball as the playoff stretch heated up. It’s safe to say the IceRays learned a lot in their first season in the NAHL and, despite just missing the playoffs this year, for the players and coaches there’s plenty to be proud of.
“I think the most positive thing for us right now is that the majority of the players who are playing in every game, logging the long minutes and producing for us, are guys who are still young and will be back here next year,” said IceRays head coach Brent Hughes.
Case in point: The IceRays’ top-five scorers will still be young enough to return next season, and their leading scorer, Beau Walker, is just 18-years-old.
Walker, from West Richland, Wash., has been a beacon of light this year for the IceRays. He leads Corpus Christi in points and assists and is in the top 15 in league scoring. He was also one of only a few players in the entire league to have participated in both NAHL Top Prospect tournaments this season.
“Beau is a kid who came into the beginning of the season as a defensive forward, but, as the year progressed, he took on a scoring role and hasn’t looked back,” said Hughes. “He’s a big reason for this team and our fans to be excited for next season.”
Hughes also points out youngsters like Seth Blair, Cody Milligan and goaltender Pheonix Copley.
To say Copley has shouldered the load is putting it mildly. Copley, who just turned 19, has played in 25 of last 27 IceRays games.
“Pheonix is an outstanding athlete and a great person,” said Hughes. “I think all the experience and game situations will make him a better goaltender in the long run and a key piece of our team heading into next season. He’s proven he can play at this level.”
As for the remainder of this season, the IceRays have five games remaining, including three on the road this weekend against Texas (one) and Amarillo (two) before returning home next weekend for their final two games against New Mexico.
“There’s plenty to play for,” said Hughes. “Guys are playing for spots next season. We want to see who wants to be with us and who doesn’t, so we hope they’re going out there every shift and giving it their all.
“We’re also working on some different combinations and systems for next season as well, so we want to finish strong and win as many games as we can.”
As for Hughes, he has learned a lot as well.
“This year has been a big learning experience for me,” he said. “I thought I’d be a better junior coach than a pro coach, but I had to get back to basics more than I thought. It really has given me a good idea of what to do next year.
“We're dealing with a whole new generation of players,” he added. “They play for something different and pure. They need more care and supervision, but they respond with positive reinforcement and explanation of their mistakes.”
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
AMARILLO BULLS: Amarillo began last week with a 3-1 win at home over New Mexico. Forward Zack Smoot was the offensive star, factoring in on every goal, while goaltender Gregg Gruehl made 23 saves for his first win of the season. The first-year Bulls remarkable run towards a South Division regular-season title unfortunately ended the next two nights at home against the first-place Topeka Roadrunners. On Friday, the Bulls got goals from four different players, but fell 7-4. On Saturday, Dan Sherer had three points, including a goal and two assists, and Smoot added two assists, but it wasn’t enough in a 5-3 loss. The losses marked only the fourth time this season the Bulls lost back-to-back games in regulation. Amarillo has six games remaining with three of those games coming this week beginning on Wednesday night in Wichita Falls and continuing on Saturday and Sunday at home against the Corpus Christi IceRays. The Bulls need just three wins in their final six games to finish in second place in the South.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: The Mustangs fell in their lone game last weekend, a 3-1 loss at Amarillo. Brad Wilhelm continued his hot play by scoring the game’s first goal with an assist from Charles Baldwin, but that would be all the scoring for the Mustangs. Goaltender Lukas Hernandez, who has been a glimpse at the future in New Mexico since arriving in early February, played admirably in the loss making 42 saves. Hernandez’s save percentage for the season is at a stingy .933. Forward Adam Chapie continues to pace the Mustangs in points with 31 this season. Twelve out of the last 13 Mustangs games have been decided by three goals or less. New Mexico will play a rare four games this week beginning with their home finale on Tuesday and Wednesday against the Wenatchee Wild, followed up by two games this weekend at Wichita Falls.
TEXAS TORNADO: The Tornado took five of six points last weekend with two wins in Corpus Christi on Thursday and Friday and a shootout loss at home to the Wichita Falls Wildcats on Saturday. Offensively, newcomer Jimmy Murray paced the Tornado with a goal and four assists in the three games. Mico Solorzano had two goals in Thursday’s 5-1 win and goaltender Jimmy Kruger made 26 saves. On Friday, forward Nate Sliwinski scored twice and defenseman Ralfs Freibergs had three assists in a wild 7-6 shootout win against the IceRays. On Saturday, the Tornado was on the short end of a 4-3 shootout loss to the Wildcats despite outshooting Wichita Falls 45-35 in the game. Texas is second in the NAHL in shots per game averaging over 35 per contest. The Tornado hosts Wichita Falls on Tuesday and Corpus Christi on Friday this week.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: The RoadRunners locked up the South Division regular-season title with a three-game road sweep of the Wichita Falls Wildcats and Amarillo Bulls last weekend. With the wins, the RoadRunners have now won 10 straight games dating back to February 12. Forward Brian Christie was the offensive star of the weekend, registering seven assists. On Friday, Nate Milam had a hat trick and an assist in a 4-2 win against the Wildcats. On Saturday, Topeka’s offense exploded for seven goals, including four on the power play, in a 7-4 win over the Bulls. Defenseman Jacob Poe led the way with a goal and two assists and goaltender Eric Rohrkemper won his seventh straight start. Rohrkemper hasn’t lost a game in regulation since Oct. 29. On Sunday, Jordan Davis scored the game-winning goal en route to a 5-3 win and the South Division title. This weekend, Topeka’s winning streak will be put to the test as the North Division-leading St. Louis Bandits come to town for a battle of division leaders.
WICHITA FALLS WILCATS: The Wildcats split their two games last weekend, falling on Friday at home to the Topeka RoadRunners, 4-2, but rebounding on Saturday with a 4-3 shootout win in Frisco over the Tornado. On Friday, the Wildcats led 2-1 thanks to goals from Keil Zornow and Drew Allen, but the RoadRunners scored the final three goals of the game to win. Eric Garavaglia started in goal and stopped 41 of 45 shots in the tight loss. The Wildcats rebounded one afternoon later as they edged the Tornado in a shootout, 4-3. Brian White, Joe Adams and Will Suter scored in regulation and then the Wildcats got goals in the shootout from Suter and Miha Stebih to win the game. Goaltender Tyler Green was spectacular in goal, stopping 42 of 45 Tornado shots. The Wildcats prepare for a four-game week beginning on Tuesday in Frisco, followed by a home game on Wednesday against Amarillo and two more home contests over the weekend against New Mexico.