It was a big weekend for the Tucson Roadrunners, with both games pretty much being a must-win situation as the club suited up against the Bakersfield Condors, who sat ahead of the Roadrunners in the Pacific Division standings. If the Roadrunners wanted to put some fuel in the tank for a playoff push, it was going to come from this series.
The St. Patrick’s Day game — a game highlighted by the green beer — was going to be a big one and show what the Roadrunners were about, or so one would think.
Their start was good… not great, but good. The team’s best chance early on came when Michael Bunting sped into the zone and sent the puck wide. There were rushes here and there, moments of excitement, but for most of the first period, they just kept shooting the puck in and chasing it right back out. When they didn’t get the first tally on the board, their play just seemed to plateau and those bits of excitement disappeared. Throughout the rest of the game, the only times the crowd got into it was when there was a bad call (which happened often), or the Condors’ goaltender got out of position and left an empty net for the Roadrunners — which they missed every time.
The Roadrunners usually have stars like Christian Fischer and Kyle Wood paving the way and upping the pace for the game, but not Friday night. There was hardly a player that stood out. The only one who seemed to turn heads was Laurent Dauphin, as usual these days. And his efforts alone were not enough to get the Roadrunners on the board.
The game just felt agonizing. There wasn’t much to the technical side of the game — it just felt bad. The boxscore agreed at the end of the game when the Roadrunners fell 4-0.
And that’s been a big story for the Roadrunners since Brendan Perlini became a permanent NHLer in December — their play just hasn’t felt the same. Since Perlini’s call-up, lines have been shuffled and juggled and chemistry has disappeared. Perlini, Chris Mueller, and Christian Fischer all notably had “perfect” chemistry, and now that’s disappeared. Trevor Cheek, Hunter Fejes, and Lindsay Sparks were at one point a strong fourth line who was always making a difference, even if it wasn’t on the score sheet. All three of them are not on the roster anymore. The Roadrunners have five forwards on the roster that were not in their system at the start of the season; that’s a lot of guys when it comes to line combinations.
Your team needs to play like a team and the Roadrunners just didn't have that Friday night, and many nights before. But despite that, the Roadrunners actually managed to show off some depth in the Saturday night contest.
There was something in the air when the puck dropped the second night on their Cancer Awareness night — the Roadrunners were there to fight — metaphorically and literally.
The Roadrunners were always getting into it after the whistle with the Condors and at times, with the referees. After a weak tripping call against Tyler Gaudet in the second period, which resulted in a Condors goal, Gaudet came out of the box, absolutely delighted at the call. To thank the ref, he tapped his stick on the ice, mouthing “good job” to the ref before skating off to the bench. Gaudet didn’t make it to the bench before he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
And after the rough night of calls the previous night, and what was being called that night, Gaudet’s displeasure was surely justified. One of the oddest calls Saturday was where a Condor shot the stick back to his goaltender after he’d lost it and could not reach it.
For the first time in a long time, the Roadrunners’ special teams did not look flat. While three of the four goals scored for Bakersfield were on the power play, the Roadrunners did not just roll over and let the Condors score. Each goal was scored on a well-crafted, hard fought play; you couldn’t blame the Roadrunners for the slick goals. You especially could not blame Marek Langhamer, who had 30 saves on the night.
Their power play was hit and miss, which generally isn’t great, but for a few months the man-advantage had just been a complete miss, so it was refreshing to see opportunities being generated, even if nothing came of them. Fischer was finally making his presence known and Jamie McBain was keeping the puck in the zone like the good ol’ days.
Many of the younger players were also showing off their elite skill that’d we’d been seeing develop throughout the year. Ryan MacInnis was flying up and down the ice, taking big hits and dishing them out in the neutral zone. His intentions weren’t fancy: get the puck in, and get it on net. His fourth line kept the game simple, and the rookie flourished, even without a point on the night.
The line that made the biggest impact had to be the 26-27-28 line: Jeremy Morin, Michael Bunting, and Grayson Downing. While the top line of Dauphin-Mueller-Whitney got two goals on the night, it gave the Roadrunners life, seeing one of their youngest players jelling with two new guys on the third line. Head coach Mark Lamb had mentioned that the team needed scoring from places other than the top line.
The Roadrunners listened and capitalized.
Maybe, just maybe, the Roadrunners were finding solid ground to stand on.
The building, despite being less liquored up than the previous night, was louder, and everyone was having a better time. The atmosphere in the Tucson Convention Center had changed overnight, and so had the Roadrunners. And for the first time in forever, the Roadrunners were leading. They had a solid chance at winning. That is, until the final minute of the second period when the Condors tied it up.
Another late goal by the Condors, this time in the third period, wound up being the game-winner, but it was a well-fought match every fan could walk away from with a little more hope than before. The only reason the Roadrunners lost were the terrible calls against both teams, Tucson just wound up paying the price.
But despite the loss, the Roadrunners were cheerful at the post game jersey auction, thankful as always for the fans and their support. It was the cheapest auction of the year, the most expensive jersey, Dusty’s, sold for just $1000. At the previous two auctions Adin Hill’s went for $2000. There were also silent stick auctions which created some bidding wars and very stressed fans, but also created some very pleased winners. All of the money raised in the auctions went to support the University of Arizona Cancer Center.
The Roadrunners’ next games are on the 25th and 26th when they face off against the San Jose Barracuda, the first AHL team to clinch a playoff position. With them also being a Pacific Division team, it will be important for the Roadrunners to come away with a win in the weekend series.