Story by Tony Uminski
SAN ANTONIO – Check it out. Who is alone in third place in the AHL’s Central Division.
Thanks to a five-game winning streak, the San Antonio Rampage have pulled ahead of four division rivals and now have their highest standing since October after a 3-0 win over the Rockford IceHogs Sunday.
Third-period goals from Austin Poganski, Jordan Nolan and Dakota Joshua into an empty net provided the offense, while goaltender Ville Husso kept the IceHogs off the board.
Husso continued his current streak of hot play between the pipes — winning seven of his last 10 games – stopping all 19 Rockford shots to put his record at 16-15-8. His goals-against is 1.67 during this past 10 games, and if you discount his 4-0 loss in Iowa on Feb. 5, that GAA drops to 1.41 with two shutouts.
With both teams not bending the twine through two periods, the defensive end took center stage Sunday, especially with a slow start by the Rampage in the offensive zone. Husso rose to the occasion with some brilliant stops when called upon through 40 minutes.
“A little sloppy start today,” said Husso, who saves percentage in his last 10 games stands at an exceptional .940, “but we found a way to get the three goals and get the win, so that’s all that matters.”
“Our goaltending has been the biggest difference,” said Rampage head coach Drew Bannister. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence and making some key saves. I thought Ville made some difficult saves in the first period when we weren’t very sharp. The game got easier for him as we got better in the second and the third.”
It took the Rampage over six minutes to get their first shot on goal, but they nearly beat Rockford goaltender, Matt Tompkins, with three rapid fire shots and one by Robbie Jackson that slid parallel to the goal line through the crease behind the Hogs goaltender. The Rampage didn’t get their next shot on goal until there was under a minute left in the period.
San Antonio skaters woke up in the second period, and a goal mouth scramble near the end of the period nearly broke the ice on the scoreboard, but Alexey Toropchenko’s shot just missed wide right.
It appeared the hockey gods were ordering a 0-0 game last night, especially when Jake Walman’s wrist shot clanged off the post after taking a nice feed from Nolan Stevens, and less than a minutes later, Klim Kostin broke in alone, only to be chopped down by Rockford’s Gabriel Gagne.
However, on the ensuing tripping call, Poganski backhanded the puck into the net from the top of the crease for his 10th goal of the season at 6:03. Then, 21 seconds later off a turnover, the puck found Jordan Nolan to the left of the net and the Rampage captain tapped the disc into the empty net for a 2-0 bulge. Newcomer from the New York Islanders organization, Josh Ho-Sang delivered the puck to Nolan for the lone assist on the play.
The Rampage continued to dominate the final 20 minutes, outshooting the IceHogs 15-2, and with 1:38 remaining, Joshua sealed the win with a close-in shot into the empty net, with Toropchenko and Niko Mikkola getting assists.
“I didn’t think we were very good in the first. I thought they beat us to a lot of pucks,” said Bannister. “I thought we were much better in the second. I think it was the last shift of that period, Dakota, Tanner and Alex had an outstanding shift where the puck was all around the net. They did everything right except score. And I think that just carried over. These are important games against Rockford and Grand Rapids, moving forward if we want to make a push to get ourselves in a playoff position, we have to be good. I thought we played with urgency in the third period and it showed on the scoreboard.”
Husso responded to his January drought by saying, “I think I was going through some tough times. Just talked with the goalie coach, be the Ville every night I can be, and not try to be anything else. Go puck by puck, and I think that works pretty well right now. Like I said we’re in a good spot as a team too, so we’re playing good hockey. We scoring some goals, so that’s a good thing.”
The Rampage played again without second-leading point producer, Nathan Walker, but welcomed Poganski and Cam Darcy back after they missed Friday’s game.
Next up is another contest with Grand Rapids Tuesday night and Friday night the Texas Stars come calling. A week down the road is a Sunday afternoon tilt with the league’s best team, the Milwaukee Admirals to wind down the five-game homestand. A divisional road trip to Brewer Town, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa will follow. The team will have to be at its best on that trip. Milwaukee and Iowa’s combined home record is 33-15-6-1.
A check of the Central Division standings after the Rampage win and a Chicago loss in overtime Sunday shows Milwaukee leading the pack with 84 points, Iowa in second with 78. Then there’s a steep falloff with the Rampage in third with 60 points, while Chicago, Grand Rapids and Rockford having 59 points each. The Rampage position is even more impressive since they have played one less game than the Wolves, two fewer than the Griffins and three less than the IceHogs. Manitoba is lurking behind with 53 points, but the Moose have shown in the past the ability to get on a hot streak, and they have two games here on Mar. 21 and 23.