Story by Tony Uminski
The American Hockey League franchise currently known as the San Antonio Rampage have 16 games remaining in their 18-year history – IF
That’s a big IF.
Should the team finish in the top four spots of the Central Division, the call for a temporary stay of execution will go out to the chairman of the league Governors, David Andrews, and newly appointed President, Scott Howson, to extend the final days of Rampage for at least three more games, or maybe up to five. Or more.
Can this Rampage team venture forth were only four in 18 years have ventured before? That’s not a lot of venturing.
Even the most ardent of Rampage fans had to wonder about a concerted playoff run by this year’s club, but since the announcement of the franchise sale and pro hockey leaving San Antonio in snowflakes, not dust, the team wheeled off five straight wins before coming back down to earth in the last week of winless hockey. But good fortune is with the Rampage right now, since five teams are separated by only four points, and the Rampage has games in hand over three of the other four clubs in the playoff mix.
Right now, the Grand Rapids Griffins are in the driver’s seat with 63 points today, but since the five teams, plus the last place Manitoba Moose who trail by eight points, play each other over the final four weeks of the season, the listings frolic up and down like lightning bugs in a bottle.
In fourth place today are the Chicago Wolves and the Rockford IceHogs with 62 points each, followed by the Rampage with 60 and the suddenly resurgent Texas Stars with 59. The Rampage has played three fewer games than the Hogs, and two fewer contests than the Griffins. They have one game less than the Wolves, but are even with the Stars in games played, but hold that one-point lead and the tie-breaker of games won in regulation, 21-18. The Stars play late in Colorado Tuesday night and could leapfrog the Rampage with a win, or draw even with an overtime or shootout loss.
Playoff fever was beginning to simmer last week after the 3-0 shutout win over Rockford that shot San Antonio to third place. But, the Rampage has forgotten how to score, despite outshooting their opponents in each of their three straight losses. In their last three home games, they’ve scored just four goals after being blanked Sunday by Milwaukee.
So the Rampage has to find their scoring touch quickly, as they play one of those idiotic, but profitable late morning games in Milwaukee Wednesday – yep, against the best team in the AHL. It should be pointed out one of the highlights of the season was a 5-4 overtime win in Panther Arena 10 days ago, which also excited the fan base into thinking the post-season possibility had some degree of actually coming to fruition.
After the Admirals game, the Rampage moves down the road to Rosemont, Illinois to challenge the Wolves, and then there’s two in Des Moines against the second-best team in the division, the Iowa Wild, who would be the best team in the league if it weren’t for the Admirals. Milwaukee is 40-14-5-3 while the Wild are 37-17-4-4.
At the end of this stretch, the Rampage should have a very good feel if they’ll be down to their final 12 games of existence, or, there is the real chance the season will be extended with a playoff-berth and a best-of-five series against either the Admirals or Wild. Pick your poison – the Rampage are 1-3 vs Iowa this season – 1-3-1-1 against the Admirals. Historically speaking, the Wild give the Rampage a better chance, but at this level, with teams changing personnel as quickly as the standings change week to week, historical records don’t carry much weight. But for the record, overall, SA is 21-11-5-3 vs Iowa, while only 39-60-2-6-7 against Milwaukee.
So how does the race line up?
Grand Rapids, with 14 games remaining, have eight of those at home, where they have usually been a tough out, but this season, visitors have enjoyed some success there. Right now, the Griffins, a perennial Calder Cup challenger and winner of two Cups in the past seven seasons – all in the playoffs – are 14-11-2-3 at VanAndal Arena. Their remaining road games are mostly north of the border, with stops in Toronto, Bellville, and Manitoba, and a final game of the season in Milwaukee. Since the Admirals are in the mix for best record overall, the midshipmen may take that final game seriously.
For home games, the Griffins have games with the Wild, the Wolves and Admirals, plus the Stars and Rampage. The weird out-of-whack scheduled games are against the Bakersfield Condors this weekend.
The IceHogs have only 13 games left but only face Central Division foes, with six at home and seven on the road. However, Rockford plays three of its final four games away from the BMO Harris Bank Center. The Blackhawks affiliate has allowed only 10 goals in the last 8 games at home, including back-to-back shutouts (one against SA) since a 7-1 thrashing Feb 1 by, guess who – Milwaukee.
Rockford has four games with the Admirals, which could be bad for their record considering the Hogs are one of the reasons Milwaukee is at the top of the heap, going 1-7-1-1 against Milwaukee this season. The Piggies also have three with the Wolves, which in the barnyard isn’t an ideal matchup, but on ice, Rockford is 6-2-1-1 this year. Two games with Texas (4-1-0-1) and Iowa (1-3-0-0) and one more game with the Rampage (4-3-0-0) round out the slate for the Hogs, two years removed from the Western Conference Finals. One consideration, Rockford has only one game that final weekend of the season, where other teams play twice. That can be good or bad depending on the situation.
Chicago plays eight of its final 15 games at Allstate Arena, where they are just 13-12-3-2 this season. They are 3-4-1-2 their last 10 games, so Rocky Thompson’s crew are struggling like the Rampage are right now. The Wolves have most of their games against division foes, but they also entertain the Cleveland Monsters (1-2 vs Cleveland this year), who are six games under .500, and the Wolves are testing the AHL schedule of the future with two games in Austin against the Stars (3-2-1-0), with no trip to San Antonio on the slate. Both final games against the Rampage will be in Rosemont.
Chicago has played well against both Iowa and Milwaukee, surprisingly – going is 3-3 vs Iowa (2 home games left) and 4-5-0-2 against the Admirals (one road game left). The Wolves have two home games against Rockford (3-5-1-0), two home games against Manitoba (4-3-3-0), two home games against SA (4-2-0-0), and two games in Grand Rapids (3-3-0-0).
The Stars have gone 2-0-1-0 since sinking to the depths of the division in February and have once against revived themselves thanks mainly to the work of Jake Ottenger in goal, who beat the Rampage with 32 saves Friday night, and 46 stops on Milwaukee Saturday night, including having his team being outshot 17-3 in the third period.
The Stars have seven of their remaining 16 games at home, and as San Antonio, are on the road this week in Colorado tonight and Wednesday with a weekend set in Tucson – four very challenging games against the two top teams in the Pacific Division. The Eagles are 17-9-1-1 at home, while the Roadrunners, leading the Pacific most of the season, are 16-8-1-1 at the Tucson Convention Center Arena. The Rampage’s loss Friday night, 2-1 to the Stars, was the first setback of the season for the Rampage against Texas (7-1-0-1), but the Stars still have some tough road games ahead in Rockford, Manitoba (2) and Grand Rapids, along with the regular-season finale here against the Rampage on April 11. Texas is 2-3-0-0 against the Moose, but are 5-2-0-0 against the Griffins. Officially against San Antonio, the Stars are 2-5-1-1, which looks much better than the Rampage record against them. The Stars do have a four-game homestand in April, with the Rampage playing in two of them. The IceHogs and Eagles will provide the opponents in the other games.
As you can see, the playoff picture is as clear as mud in the Central Division. Five, maybe even six teams, are vying for the final two spots. And having those two spots be available is key. In the past, it seems only the last spot was up for grabs in the final month of the regular season. Much of the mud will be washed off after this week, at least where the Rampage is concerned.
Rampage fans are hoping for an Easter miracle on ice – the resurrection, for one last time, of their hockey team, come Apr 11, delaying as much as possible the inevitable situation of no pro hockey in San Antonio for years to come.