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Tucson Roadrunners: Team rallies for a split weekend against first place Barracuda

The captain returned for a ceremony, and the team got back in the win column

Craig Cunningham stands with his mother during a pre-game ceremony
Rachel Huston

Saturday was “Cunny Did Night” at the Tucson Convention Center, an emotional night where Tucson Roadrunners’ captain Craig Cunningham would walk onto the ice to salute the fans and be recognized for his incredible will to fight back since his medical emergency that came in mid-November.

The captain walked out onto the ice to a thundering roar of applause. Every person there, whether they were there on the night of his collapse or not, understood just what Cunningham had gone though and what a warrior he was.

Cunningham, though he only played 11 games in a Tucson uniform, unified the city of Tucson and Roadrunners fans stronger than anyone has in the city before. Arizona basketball being successful can only rally people so much. Cunningham’s impact went beyond the game. He was not just a player on the ice, he was a human. And the presentation on the big screen solidified just that.

So when the ceremony concluded (and after the visiting San Jose Barracuda made a very classy move where each player shook Cunningham’s hand), the Roadrunners and their fans had Cunningham in their hearts and minds. They should win it for Cunningham, if they could manage to find enough offense to do so.

But they couldn’t.

The first game was decorated by some hard fought battles in the first 10 of the first and second periods. The Roadrunners were strong on the puck and their passes connected, but almost the second the clock hit 10:00 in each stanza, they looked worn out, and not ready to play a game.

It was as if their heavy hearts were slowing them down. They led for a total of 6:25 in the second period after goals by Branden Troock and Eric Selleck, but were quickly buried by three unanswered goals by the Barracuda in the remainder of that period. San Jose added on another goal early in the third to finish the Roadrunners for the night.

Much like the previous weekend, there was not much else to say about the game other than it was bad. At the end of the day, at least the fans could walk away knowing that the Roadrunners had scored in the past three contests after being shutout on back-to-back nights.

And much like last weekend, come the next game, the Roadrunners did not look like themselves from the previous night.

It had been less than 24 hours since the Tucson boys had been embarrassed, so the memory of the loss was fresh, and certainly pushed them forward to a dominant afternoon match-up. This time, they were going to win it for Cunnigham.

Whether it was the fact that it was an afternoon game or the Roadrunners wanted to shake up their routines, it was obvious that they were more buckled down during warm-ups than in previous games. No one was practicing their dekeing and dangling in center ice — it was just about shooting the puck and getting it past their net minders.

And the Roadrunners were finally able to execute just that — but this time, against the Barracuda’s goaltender.

It was Michael Bunting who started off the scoring with a dirty goal in the second. He really showed his colors the entire game; his play emulated that of his idol, NHL All-Star Brad Marchand. Bunting was in the Barracuda’s face, challenging them at every opportunity and pushing the pace of the game. He was the Bunting we’d all been waiting for. We finally saw him go from a player who got knocked off the puck easily and got abused in the corner with needless cross-checks, to a built forward, pushing other players off the puck and dangling defenders out of their shorts on their own blue line. Part of this has to be due to him playing on a line with Conor Garland. In both games over the weekend Bunting was paired with Garland on the other wing, and the two were always getting the puck in and getting good looks.

It had been the first time in a long time Garland had a strong presence on the ice — or on the ice at all. Up until the recall of Christian Fischer, Garland spent his time milling around Tucson Arena as a healthy scratch. But the young forward was back on the ice, turning heads like the “good old times” earlier in the season.

The afternoon was partially about the revival of some dormant offensive talent, partially about the rise of quiet defensive stars. Chris Mueller, Brandon Burlon, and Troock all scored in the next 8:08 after Bunting’s goal to give the Roadrunners a massive 4-0 lead — something they had not seen in quite some time.

That lead held on for as long as it did and amounted to four thanks to the work of two underrated players on the back end: Dakota Mermis and Dysin Mayo.

Through 59 games, Mermis has just 11 points, but it’s not his offensive abilities that make him so stellar. There’s beauty in a man laying out on the ice, putting his entire body on the line on a 5-on-3 penalty kill situation. And that was Mermis every play of the night. With some questionable calls and special teams decorating the ice for a good portion of the night, Mermis really stood out, showing just how important a “stay-at-home defender” like him really is. He was a +2 for the day.

And on the other side of that coin was Mayo, a fresh-faced rookie who had been fighting for a roster spot, but often saw himself as a healthy scratch; but not that weekend and certainly not Sunday. With the pieces to accompany him, Mayo performed like an elite two-way defender. No matter how deep he got in the zone, he would always get back. He would lead the rush and then be the first one back. When it felt like Kyle Wood was barely present on the ice, Mayo shined. In a circumstance where his defensive pair partner, Jamie McBain, was caught up-ice, Mayo was calm, back in his own zone, and ready to prevent a dreadful breakaway for the Barracuda. He ended as a +1.

But, as the story of sports usually goes, the defense wasn’t perfect through sixty. San Jose got themselves on the board late in the second and kept surging back at the struggling Roadrunners. Two of their points came while shorthanded, exposing the weakness of throwing out the top line and pair to play the majority of the special team minutes. There was hardly a single line change during a power play; the same guys, who barely shot the puck, just kept chugging away and letting in goals. Tucson was beaten down and badly outshot 16-2 in the third alone.

Many of those shots came from San Jose’s Barclay Goodrow, who got a hat trick to tie the game up at four with 51 seconds left. Needless to say, the rink was not showered in hats.

And so it was time for some free hockey, which was fun… except for the fact that Tucson had just been horribly outshot the previous period. That continued in the extra five minutes, 7-1 in fact. But thanks to Marek Langhamer’s incredible work in net, it went on to a shootout.

Garland was up first; he slipped it five-hole. At 1-0 in the second round, Daniel O’Regan of the Barracuda needed to score to put the pressure on, but Langhamer stood tall and refused the shot. Mueller then strode in, head high, and sniped for the game-winner.

Usually teams are weaker on the second day of a back-to-back, but for the second time in the last month, the Roadrunners found strength on day two, and now they got the ‘W’ to accompany the blood, sweat, and tears.

The Roadrunners have three more home games to finish out the season, their next one being on Tuesday against the last place Pacific division team, the San Antonio Rampage.