Texas once more aiming for the Stars

November 20, 2014

The Texas Stars look to achieve something only the Hershey Bears have done in the past 25 years.

Hershey retained their Calder Cup championship in 2010, the first team to win consecutive championships since the Springfield Indians at the turn of the 1990’s

It’s been a rocky start for Texas as they strive to repeat last year’s impressive season, where they pretty much swept past everyone during the regular and post season, with only the Toronto Marlies giving them cause for concern in the Conference Final.

Not really surprising when you consider four of their top five scorers are no longer with the team. Mike Hedden left to play overseas while Chris Mueller signed for the New York Rangers and has featured in the NHL. Colton Sceviour and Curtis McKenzie are currently with the Dallas Stars That leaves just Travis Morin who led the with 32 goals and 88 points in 13/14, and is currently doing the same this year with 20 points through fourteen games. Brendan Ranford and two centremen in Justin Dowling and Scott Glennie are looking to fill the gap, with all contributing ten points at the time of writing.

Rookie defenseman John Klingberg was making a huge contributing from the backend with four goals for twelve points through just ten games. He like many others though are with Dallas right now. Derek Meech is also taking up the slack as he retains a point per game pace through eleven outings Two solid defensive rocks from last season have made the step up to the NHL, in the shape of Jyrki Jokipakka (who started the year with Texas) and Jamie Oleksiak.

Texas Stars

Texas main problem lies in keeping the puck out of their own net at this current point in time

Despite having eight registered goaltenders on the books last season, it was Christopher Nilstorp who backstopped the team for the majority of the season and then all the way to the championship. Jack Campbell had outstanding numbers through his sixteen regular season games and was expected to take up the number one role with Nilstorp back in his native Sweden. Campbell has struggled with a 2-3-2 record, a save percentage only just over .900 and averaging three goals against every start. Jussi Rynnas surprisingly signed for Dallas during the summer, after one season back home in Finland, having left the Toronto organisation. As I know from personal experience, Rynnas is a streaky goaltender but when he’s hot, he’s very good. He has a 4-1-2 record, .914sv% and allows half a goal per game less than Campbell at this juncture.

Not incredible numbers but it gives you a feel as to where the problems are. Texas may be scoring plenty again but in allowing 42 goals against, are also letting way too many past them of late.

Travelling has been an issue this year with a record of 2-6-1, and they’ve lost four straight. Compare that to last year when they recorded just ten reverses in regulation all season on the road. At home it’s been the same old Stars as they sit 4-0-1. It’s that form at Cedar Park that has kept them just about sitting in a playoff spot, 8th place in the Western Conference as I write.

The moving parts of the American Hockey League make retaining success, let alone duplicating a championship win incredibly tough. History is nothing else has taught us that. It would be amiss of me not to mention the fact that they have also lost their impressive head coach in Willie Desjardins, who made the jump up to the NHL with Vancouver this past summer.

I would never dismiss a team as offensively potent as Texas, and with some bodies coming back at some point during the season, they could well be a match once more for any team in the post-season.

 


Double trouble for Marlies on the rock

November 20, 2014

A fifth straight defeat for the Toronto Marlies but the margins are slim, oh so slim.

After essentially a one goal loss last evening in St. Johns, tonight’s was also decided by a single goal, which doubtless those in blue were not happy about. The road team survived an early scare as Bibeau could only parry a shot behind him and in the scramble to get back we had to wait for a video review to confirm that the puck had not crossed the goal line.

St. Johns would open the scoring just before the midway marker and double their advantage soon after, as Toronto suffered yet another brain art that cost them dear. O’Dell and MacKinnon scored the goals that were only separated by 1:14. Toronto were throwing pucks at the net, out-shooting the IceCaps but too many efforts were easy glove hand saves for Connor Hellebuyck.

Toronto survived an early penalty kill in the second period and began to grow into the game, playing a more physical game allied with some speed through the neutral zone. It paid dividends midway through as they eventually found a way to beat Hellebuyck. Findlay driving to the net with Watling for support, ignored his steam mate and although his shot didn’t seem to have much on it, the young IceCaps net minder couldn’t keep it out. The goal generated a good 2-3 minutes of pressure from the Marlies but they couldn’t find a second and it was the home team who dominated the final minutes of the period and Bibeau had to make a remarkable sliding save to deny Lipon With 59 second left in the middle frame an absolutely snipe from Klingberg just above the hash marks gave Bibeau no chance and restored the home team’s two goal advantage. It’s a marker that should not have stood as a penalty should have been called on the play, deep in St. John’s zone. Brad Ross was hooked and then effectively mugged in the blue paint afterwards and even though referee Koharski was looking directly at the action he called nothing.

With goals hard to come by of late Toronto could really have used an early spark in the third and they almost received it. A beautiful pass from Percy sent MacMillan away, but he was stonewalled by Hellebuyck, in a save matching the brilliance of Bibeau late in the second. A power play followed, Toronto’s first of the game and 20 seconds in it should have been a two man advantage as Percy was pulled down but once more an awful non call denied them the chance. St. Johns to their credit were playing the perfect game with the lead, holding plenty of puck possession in Toronto’s zone and hemming their opponents in. Only in the last five minutes did the Marlies really put the pressure back on. A nice set up from Abbott behind the goal gave Ross a glorious chance but he contrived to fire wide and despite a minute of sustained attack, shots not finding the target or the bounce of puck eluded Toronto. A power play with 3:25 to play gave them one last hope and Dineen went for broke, pulling Bibeau for the extra attacker and for once that brave move work. McKegg dancing in from the top of the right circle sniped one home, a move we’ve certainly seen before this season. The Marlies net remained empty for the rest of the game but they weren’t able to force home a tying goal and leave the rock empty handed after back to back encounters.

Post Game Notes:

A spate of injuries and call-ups have left the Marlies down to the bare bones. They were only able to dress five defenseman today with Finn ill and Granberg hurt during yesterday’s game.

Kontiola was a healthy scratch but I’ll touch on his struggles at a later date.

Marlies managed 30 shots for only the second time this season.

Discounting empty net goals, four of the five Marlies defeats have been by a single goal but eight goals over those games tell’s the bigger story.

McKegg’s goal was his sixth of the season and he has four markers in the last five games. Seven points in eight games during November.

Viktor Loov picked up a pair of assists while Abbott registered his first point since returning from injury.

Toronto end the road trip in Hamilton this road before retuning home on Sunday to play the Bulldogs once more.

 


Marlies shutdown in St.Johns

November 19, 2014

Losses don’t come much tougher than this for the Marlies as they more than matched their hosts inside the Mile One Centre but struggled to find any offense.

The game winner would be a cruel goal to concede and one that Stuart Percy would like to forget. On a Marlies power play, Percy tried a backhand pass across the ice with a bobbling puck. It skipped over his stick and Cormier tipped it away from him setting them both on a foot race towards Gibson’s net. It was the IceCaps man who got there first and finished with aplomb to give his team the lead.

That goal was a marker late in a second period, a twenty minutes that the Marlies outplayed their opponents for the most part. The Devane-Watling-Bodie line creating chances, earning power play time on two occasions as Toronto out-shot St. Johns 8-6 with many more efforts blocked.

Chasing the game in the third period, Toronto took an early penalty but the PK held firm as it did all game long. A Toronto power play would fail to produce shortly afterwards but brought some of the best pressure they would have to tie the game but simply not enough shots were being fired on net. Gibson was doing all he could to keep his team in the game as it was Loov’s turn to make a horrible error. Turning the puck over to rookie Chase Balisy in front of the Marlies net, Gibson somehow stopped the IceCaps leading points scorer from doubling their advantage. As the game wound down the Marlies looked less likely to score with frustration setting in and Gibson had to pull out more big saves, from Albert and Brassard especially. The game would be settled with O’Dell’s empty netter inside the last minute Connor Hellebuyck stood firm for his first professional shutout

Post Game Notes:

The final shot clock favoured Toronto 23-22 and this must really frustrate the coaching staff who have been trying to hammer home the message to “shoot more.”

The Marlies offense is league worst and has managed just three goals in as many games.

A bright spot tonight was the penalty kill, which was back to somewhere near it’s best. Sticks in the lane and clearing the puck at the first opportunity gave St. Johns plenty to think about.

Carson McMillan made a good debut despite playing in an unfavoured position of LW. He played on both special teams and was solid at even strength.

Spencer Abbott came back into the line-up. Had a very good second period and started to make things happen offensively but faded in the third, likely due to being his first game back.

Christopher Gibson once more was outstanding. Did everything in his power to get the win tonight.

If Toronto could only find a little offense, they would win games with the way he’s performing right now.

The power play continues to be a concern. Finn really took the bull by the horns when given his chance on the man advantage but shot wide too often. He has a great shot and release that the team could benefit from greatly.

Mickelsson, McLaren, Orr and Ross are currently all injured.

Marlies and IceCaps go back at it Wednesday evening with a 6pm Eastern puck drop.

 


Rattie has NHL in range

November 17, 2014

The lamp is being lighted in Chicago by the St. Louis Blues 2011 second round pick.

Otherwise know as Ty Rattie, the young man from Alberta currently leads the AHL in goal scoring with ten to his name through 15 games as I write. After a very 2013/14 as a rookie, there has been no sophomore starts to this season.

Can play both wings but proximately on the right side with Dmitrij Jaskin and Pat Cannone as linemates, his hat-trick in the last outing against Rochester sent him to the top of the scoring chart.

He’s always been a shoot first guy, even through junior, and his 31 goals last season were the best total by a rookie. To use a predominately football term, the kid possesses a nose for the net. When you consider that 25 of those markers were at even strength and that 34 of his 48 points were also at 5v5, he’s a player to be feared every time he hit’s the ice.

RATTIE_041814_AHL

Not especially quick but is adept at keeping hold of the puck under pressure and finds the space on the ice that enables him to score goals with regularity. The hockey world is his oyster if he can strengthen up and improve his skating ability, two things you can most definitely work on as a young professional. If he works as hard off the ice as he does on, then there’s no doubting he will improve.

In the small amount of times I’ve had the pleasure watching him play, I can make a case for him being NHL ready but there simply isn’t a spot open for him with the Blues right now. The Chicago Wolves must be delighted however as they sit fourth in the Western Conference, just two points back of the overall lead and striving for their first championship since 2008.

Being a “shoot first” guy, Rattie only has two assists to his name, but his overall game should not be overlooked as he does possess some playmaking abilities as well as a defensive side to his game.

I’m a huge fan of this kid and the way he plays. The sooner we see him in the NHL, the better.

Until then, the AHL had better watch out.

 


Aito Iguchi – Japanese hockey sensation

November 16, 2014

Pavel Barber’s latest video about young Japanese ice hockey prodigy Aito Iguchi has gone viral.

The eleven year old is way ahead of his contemporaries in skating ability, stick handling and “hockey smarts” to name but three attributes he excels at. Those 1.2 million to have watched the eleven year old’s skills, have seen he’s not a greedy player either, as he often makes plays to set–up a team mate for a goal. A lot of people are surprised that such an exciting young talent should be Japanese. I however am not so shocked at this development having seen the latest crop of Japanese youngsters play first hand.

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I was fortunate enough to cover the IIHF Men’s U20 2014 Division 1 Group B, hosted by GB in Scotland. Japan contested in that group and were an exciting team to view for media and fans alike.

They have a real passion for the game and love to attack at every opportunity. The majority of the team have speed to burn and defensemen were always jumping into the play. This led to some exciting hockey and high scoring games, but ultimately losing every encounter this time around. Without high end goaltending and a defense that preferred offense to defense, they suffered defeats despite laying up well against the best team in the group. Blowing a lead against France in the opening game, before another one goal loss to eventual champions Italy. They allowed a compact Ukraine team to build a three goal lead before almost mounting an incredible comeback. An 8-7 loss to Kazakhstan was perhaps the best illustration of their issues right now. They lead 6-4 going into the third period but allowed their opponents to score four straight goals.

A battle with GB to avoid relegation went the way of the hosts who were able to keep Japan at arms length and neutralise their speed, allied with a fine performance from Adam Goss between the pipes.

Some of those player’s to impress in that tournament are already playing hockey overseas or have interest from clubs.

Yu Hikosaka led the team in points scoring and was always a threat to the opposition. He’s a winger who’s played in junior teams for EC Salzburg and is currently with Topeka RoadRunners of the NAHL, where’s he been for the last two seasons.

Kento Suzuki is still playing his hockey in Japanese for Chuo University but he impressed with an eye for goal. Led the team with four markers but could easily have had more. Considering this was his first tournament at the U20 level and only the second international tournament of his career, he stood out.

Yuki Miura was playing his second international tournament of the year having registered six points in five outings for the U18, which was his first taste of hockey on the big stage. Another four points for him stepping up a level was impressive for the then 17 year old, who played without any fear. Now 18, he’s with HC Kladno U20 (Czech) and is currently their second highest goal scorer with ten to his name.

Jun Hashimoto is one of the more experienced defenseman and at six feet one of the taller members of the team. Another who’s taken the chance to play a season abroad, specifically in Europe with Mora’s U20 team. He’s now with Oji Eagles of the Asia League.

The aforementioned players can look to Yushiroh Hirano who at 19 years old is playing his first season outside of Japan. With Swedish third tier team Tingsryds AIF , Hirano started the season with the U20 team and has been a point per game player. Impressing so much to have represented the Men’s team once and recorded an assist in that single outing.

A year young than Hirano is Shoma Izumi, who is with MHL team Kristall Berdsk.

At the other end of the scale is experienced defenseman Shinya Yanadori, who at 27 is also playing his first season in Europe with Danish team Esbjerg.

Akira Tagawa has spent the last two seasons in the Finnish third tier and is now with HC Panter in Estonia’s top league.

We should not forget goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji who played in the NHL as recently as 2007. This was partly due to a spate of injuries in the Los Angeles Kings organisation but Fukufuji was good with the Reading Royals and then even better in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs that season. It was a seven year stay in North American hockey for the Japanese net minder that should provide hope for those looking to follow in his footsteps.

Japan is a country that has made giant leaps in hockey terms.

At international level the Men’s team have only been competing since 1973, with the junior teams not joining the fray until the mid 1980’s. Not forgetting the ladies who only entered the international play in 1990. The Men’s team is ranked 21 in the world and have been established there for a while.

Not bad at all for a nation that has a very small pool of players to pick from.

A failing “Japan Ice Hockey League” was replaced in 2003 with the “Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH)“ and now incorporates teams from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Sang Mu and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk joining in the past two seasons have taken the league to nine teams and increased competition.

It should be no shock then to see a wonder kid like Aito Iguchi seemingly rise from nowhere. Japan has placed a great deal of focus on it’s youth system having had to start from scratch and it’s already proving successful in such a relatively short space of time. They have a great deal of stability in their set-up, with Canadian born coach Mark Mahon having been a part of their system since 2003.

The Japanese mind-set is not to settle for second best so don’t be surprised if we see more Aito Iguchi’s in the next decade or so, and perhaps even someone following Fukufuji’s lead into North American hockey.


Marlies lose out in Lehigh

November 16, 2014

After being blown out in Rochester Friday night, the Marlies were looking to bounce back in their first visit to the Phantoms new building. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms recorded their biggest ever crowd for this game and their fans were in fine voice.

A fast paced start saw the home team earn the first power play of the game and shortly after that penalty was killed, the gloves were dropped by Mathers and Broll, with a score draw the result. Back to hockey and for the second straight night, Toronto opened the scoring at the five minute marker. Brad Ross making the smart, if simple play of throwing the puck on net from the tight angle with traffic in front and somehow it snuck past Rob Zepp between the pipes. The credit was given to Carrick originally but then changed to Bodie. Marlies rode that momentum to gain a power play but their struggles with the man advantage continued. As per last night, Toronto switched off and the Phantoms from Lehigh Valley took full advantage. Following a promotional timeout, LVP’s two rookies in Leier and Laughton combined to tie the game and inside a minute later they took the lead. A poor pinch with all the Marlies left high up the ice led to a 2-on-1 break and Cousins show gave Gibson no chance. Gibson was facing a barrage for the remainder of the period and he should receive a lot of credit for keeping his team in the game as Toronto were architects of their own downfall with basic errors aplenty.

A scoreless middle frame was only made remarkable by that the Phantoms best chances came while being shorthanded. Laughton shooting just wide with Gibson beaten was the best of those as Toronto continued to make dumb plays. Even strength was a different matter however as the Marlies looked the better team. Finn sending Watling away with a stretch pass, only to be denied from another fine save by Zepp while Biggs saw his shot well blocked on an odd man rush.

Down by a goal, beginning the third on the penalty kill wasn’t ideal for the road team but once more it was Gibson to the rescue with a dandy of a glove save and then a smart left pad stop to deny Straka on a slight breakaway. The Marlies would draw confidence from those saves and tally on the power play of all things! McKegg with a beauty of a snipe from the high slot after nice work from Connor Brown behind the net to keep the puck alive. Perhaps there were a few tired legs in the line-up as the home team responded and dominated the play after the tying goal. Again it was only Gibson who denied them, but even he could not save the team late on. The officials called two dubious penalties within 18 seconds, both to the Marlies and to their credit the home team made it count. A bomb of a shot from defenseman Brandon Manning beat Gibson, despite the net minder getting a piece of the effort. With less than four to go, that goal was a dagger to Marlies hearts but inside the last two minutes, they were also handed a two man advantage to help their cause. Almost afraid to shoot at times, the best chance fell to McKegg who was denied by a mixture of desperate diving defenseman and bad luck, with goaltender Zepp out of the action on the play. There would be no tying goal and the Marlies fell to their third straight loss.

Post Game Notes:

If the AHL stats are correct, the Marlies hit the 30 shot mark for the first time this season.

Finn’s assist on McKegg’s goal was his first professional point.

Kontiola is still to register a point and the early promise he showed has somewhat faded. I’m not sure what to make of his play of late but it hasn’t been good.

You could also put Broll in that category as he still hasn’t found any groove to his game and continues to feel he has to fight to be a presence. A total of 54 PIM through twelve games without a solitary point to his name.

Biggs and Ross continue to do well after returning from Orlando and I wonder if there might be more call-ups in the form of Carson McMillan who has a point per game through six outings and Ryan Rupert.

A pair of back-to-back games against the IceCaps continues this road trip and the Marlies will need to be on their metal against a very strong offensive team who love to put one over Toronto

 


Amerks hit Marlies for Six

November 15, 2014

Excited, exasperated and dumbfounded are just three ways hockey can make you feel at times.  The Marlies left their fans and no doubt the coaching staff feeling the latter of those three in Rochester Friday night.

There was no warning of the beating about to take place on the ice as Toronto dominated the even strength play for the first 14 minutes or so of the opening frame. They even took the lead at the five minute marker as Rochester played perfect hosts by allowing McKegg to walk in from the corner and beat Makarov short side with the net minding having gone down way too early.

Toronto were playing the perfect road game in not allowing Rochester to set up in the offensive zone and exiting with ease. That is until they stopped playing for some reason and their sloppy play allowed Rochester to gain a foothold in the game and eventually draw a penalty. The first time the Amerks were able to set up, they teed one for Larsson to fire home short side in off the crossbar. For a team that had lost five straight and not garnered a point when trailing after twenty minutes, it was the perfect recipe. After surviving efforts from Brown and McKegg on the shift following the goals, it was now Rochester who dominated and they should have taken a lead with a two man advantage which they also took into the beginning of the middle frame.

Toronto were able to nullify their two man disadvantage and garner a couple of opportunities but Kontiola would be denied with the rebound from his effort bouncing over the stick of Connor Brown. Yet another brain-fart allowed Rochester to take a lead they would not relinquish. Luke Adam was allowed to regain possession on the right boards and walk in all alone to the net and using Irwin as a screen found a hole to squeeze the puck through and beat Bibeau. The same old second period woes were coming back to haunt Toronto and yet another power play marker would see them trailing by two after forty minutes. To be fair it was a poor call from the officials but the penalty kill wasn’t on the money tonight and Luke Adam had little trouble in finding the net for the second time. The last real chance Toronto had of making this a close game came late in the period but the decision by Brad Ross to pass instead of shoot on a 2 on 1 break summed up the performance.

The Marlies never looked like making this one close despite a powerplay and the straw to break the camel’s back came with under ten to play. Matt Ellis allowed to walk in all alone down the left side with Orr and Watling having gone AWOL, and he potted his second goal of the season. Disappointingly, the road team decided to down tools for the remainder of the game, as they allowed Rochester to run up the score with two late goals. Ellis with his second of the game, this time a tip and then Carrier as Toronto almost stood around watching in awe as the game passed them by.

After such positive performances on the western portion of this road-trip, the showing in this game was a huge step backwards, especially against a divisional rivals where points are at a premium.

I would expect and hope for some changes to the line-up for Saturday’s tilt with Lehigh Valley.

A lot of the focus this week was on taking shots and getting pucks to the net. A message that wasn’t heeded as the shot total registered 24 while the hosts hit the 30 mark, something the Marlies have yet to do this season

Post Game Notes:

McKegg’s goal was his fourth of the season and Brad Ross notched his third point since returning, with the lone assist.

Marlies record against divisional rivals is 3-5 this season. That needs to improve if they harbour any hopes of making the post-season.

Antoine Bibeau made his first start since his grandfathers funeral and although he looked rusty, you could not lay any portion of blame on him for this loss.

Lang and Finn were both definite healthy scratches for this game and I’d expect the latter to slot in as well as Lang make his AHL debut. Abbott and Mikkelson are both hurt and not expected to feature.

 


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