Mid-season report: South Division
Through the first half the season there has been no team better than the Amarillo Bulls (26-3-4, 56 points), who have the league’s best record and a 10 point lead in the South Division at the break. The Bulls are continuing the momentum from last year’s Robertson Cup appearance and 3rd place finish and appear to be headed right back in that direction. Amarillo has the league’s top goal-scorer in Brooks Behling, who has 25 goals at the halfway mark and has many people talking MVP. Behling is tied for the league lead with six game-winning goals is also second in the NAHL in shots on goal, plus/minus rating and is tied for 3rd in points with 43. It also can be argued that the Bulls possess the best defensive pair in the league with John Rey and Holy Cross recruit Karl Beckman. Not only are they the top two scoring defensemen in the league, but they also rank 1-2 in plus/minus for all NAHL defensemen. The Bulls will benefit when they get high-scoring John Gustafsson back from injury. Although all the wins are nice, Amarillo also leads the league this season in college commitments with seven already this season, which is a testament not only to the player’s development, but the coaching staff as well. A staggering nine Bulls players have 20 points or more this season, part of a team that leads in NAHL in total team goals, assists and points. However, what may give the Bulls the edge this season is the team defense. They allow the second fewest goals per game, the third fewest shots per game and have two solid netminders in Gregg Gruehl and Mike Taffe, both of whom have put up some great numbers this season. It leads to a lethal combination that make the Bulls the best team through the first half of the season, something they look to continue in the second half and throughout the playoffs.
As the host, the Texas Tornado (20-6-6, 46 points) know they will be one of the six teams at the Robertson Cup in May thanks to their automatic bid. Despite that fact, the Tornado are playing like they are out to earn a spot thanks to a very solid first half of the season, as they sit solidly in 2nd place in the South. The Tornado have just six regulation losses, which is tied for third fewest in the NAHL. The offense is potent thanks to seven players with 20 points or more. Third year veteran forward Jack Prince continues to be one of the best players in the league and he is having another tremendous offensive season with 36 points. His 146 career NAHL regular season points make him one of the top point producers in modern league history. The Tornado have also found two gems with the addition of brothers Jordan and Justin Greenberg. Jordan came to the Tornado after leading the Austin Bruins in goals last season and Justin is of the better 1994’s in the NAHL this season. Jordan Lovick and Taylor Herndon also add depth up front. On the back end, Nick Neville has been solid for the Tornado with 18 points from the blueline and the addition of Mercyhurst recruit Mychal Monteith from Corpus Christi should help Texas with its defensive depth. Despite having the league’s 4th best offense, the Tornado rank in the middle of the pack in goals allowed per game. Joakim Jutras and Reid Mimmack have split time in goal, but neither has stepped to the forefront to become the team’s #1 starter. The Tornado have a very solid foundation that will make them a legit cup contender, but expect them to be active in the second half adding some final pieces to the puzzle.
The Topeka RoadRunners (19-11-2, 40 points) have made the playoffs in every season since moving to Topeka and this year appears to be continuing that trend. Although they sit in 3rd place at the break, the RoadRunners are 14 points ahead of 4th place Corpus Christi and just six points behind the Texas Tornado. They have done it all with a host of injuries and a line-up that is rarely the same on a game-by-game basis. Third-year veteran forward Ryan White is leading the charge and having a career season offensively. His 36 points leads the team and his 25 assists rank tied for 3rd in the NAHL. Veteran forward and Merrimack recruit Brian Christie and Dan Dupell are also having good offensive seasons. The RoadRunners have used to the first half to iron out their goaltending situation and it appears the starting job belongs to Peter Traber. Topeka doesn’t give up a lot defensively, which will make them a viable threat in the second half, especially when they get fully healthy. They also have one of the good, young forwards in the league in Ben Bahe, and solid defensive corps anchored by UCONN recruit Chris Bond. If the RoadRunners can get back to a healthy line-up and secure one of the top two spots in South, assuring themselves of home ice for at least a round of the playoffs, they have a good a shot as anyone in the division to return to the Robertson Cup.
As the old hockey saying goes “you’re only as good as your goalie.” Thus is the case for the Corpus Christi Ice Rays (12-13-2, 26 points), who at a game under .500 in the standings, occupy the 4th and final playoff spot in the South at the break. It is thanks in large part to their first half MVP Anthony Stolarz. The 17-year-old Stolarz earned the starting goaltending job in mid-October has hasn’t looked back. His save percentage of 92.6% is a true testament to how good he has been this season, which also paid off in a college commitment to University of Nebraska-Omaha. The IceRays made it clear from the start of this season that they were committed to developing good, young talent. That philosophy has made the top six scorers the IceRays have this season all players who are part of the Corpus Christi youth movement. That movement has been led by Eric Purcell, Perry D’Arrisso and Matthew Weis, who all share the scoring lead at 18 points. The IceRays have only played 27 games, second lowest in the league to this point, meaning the meat of their schedule still remains. If the IceRays are going to make the playoffs they are going to have to earn it with two remaining road trips to Amarillo, two to Texas and one to Topeka. Despite just three wins since November 4th, the ‘Rays still remain a confident bunch, but they are going to have to win consistently on the road, something they will have to do come playoff time if they want to consider themselves a viable cup contender.
Nipping on the heels of the ‘Rays, are the Odessa Jackalopes (10-15-4, 24 points), who have a similar team make-up as Corpus. That is thanks in large part to their goaltender and team MVP of the first half, Connor Hellebuyck, who like Stolarz, committed to an NCAA Division I school (UMASS-Lowell) during the first half of the season. Even though the 18-year-old Hellebuyck has just a 9-12-4 record his save percentage of 93.5% ranks tied for 2nd in the NAHL. He also ranks 3rd in minutes played. If there were to be a league MVP for the first half of the season, Hellebuyck would get strong consideration. Odessa remains in the hunt for the 4th and final playoff spot despite the fact they have scored the second fewest goals in the league to date. Willie Faust, who recently committed to Army, leads the team in goals with 11 and Jalen Krogman leads the team in points with 18. The Jackalopes would also like to see more contribution from their blueliners. Jacks defensemen have combined to score just five goals so far this season, with three of those coming from Aditya Karandikar. If the Jacks can find a way to create more offense and Hellebuyck can continue to have the hot hand in goal, anything, including the playoffs is possible for Odessa in their first NAHL season.
Sitting in 6th place, but only four points out of the fourth and final playoff spot is the Wichita Falls Wildcats (10-18-2, 22 points). The Wildcats have always played well in front of the home fans at the Kay Yeager coliseum and this year is no exception. However, the Wildcats have found it tough sledding on the road, which has put them behind the 8-ball entering the second half of the season. If the Wildcats are going to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year it will be thanks to the play of forwards like Vermont recruit Dennis Kravchenko, RIT recruit and defenseman Bradley Shumway, Chris Pontello and their newest addition, Jakob Batcha, who was acquired recently from the Coulee Region Chill. The Wildcats are one of only three team in the league who have yet to have a 10-goal scorer this season. Goaltender Matt Leon has been a nice addition from the 3HL and has taken over the starting goaltending spot. The Wildcats play 12 of their final 16 games at home, but the big question will be can they put themselves into playoff position before entering that stretch and taking advantage of their better play on home ice?
The South Division is rounded out by the New Mexico Mustangs (9-20-2, 20 points), who despite being at the bottom of the division sit just six points out of a playoff spot. The Mustangs have played a lot better hockey of late winning more games in the last month (5) than the first two months of the season (4). With wins over Texas, Corpus Christi, Amarillo and Wichita Falls this season in the division, there is no reason to believe that they can’t continue the trend with the recent good play and forge ahead to playoff territory. UMASS-Lowell recruit Adam Chapie continues to show why he is one of the best offensive talents in the league with his nightly play. He leads the Mustangs in points with 26 this season. Cornell recruit Eric Sade has been a nice addition on defense and Evan Johnston and Charles Baldwin continue to provide offensively, while maintain and positive +/- rating. With two shutouts this season goaltender Randy Graham appears to have secured the starting role between the pipes and has a capable and experienced back-up in Jake Stafford. With a couple of winning streaks in the second half the Mustangs put themselves right back in the playoff picture, which is one of the current benefits of the way the South Division sets up currently. The Mustangs will need to get more scoring from more of their line-up, but they shouldn’t be counted out yet.
Next up in the NAHL mid-season reports: The West Division.