With Wednesday’s 5-4 win over the Iowa Wild, the Rampage set a new franchise record for consecutive home victories with their eighth straight win at the AT&T Center.
Considering how the season began, not many pundits would predict a two-game streak, never mind eight contests that stretch back to a Thanksgiving 7-3 loss to the Texas Stars on November 25. Only two of the wins have been against struggling teams, Ontario and Manitoba. The Wild, who will sit on the visiting bench again Friday night, have lost only 10 games in regulation this season. Three of those losses have come to the Rampage in the streak.
Throw in two wins against the improving Stars, a quality 2-1 overtime victory over perennial playoff contender Milwaukee show the streak hasn’t been about a lucky break in the schedule, but more about a team coming to terms of who they are.
“I think we’ve matured as a team,” said defenseman Chris Butler Thursday. “I see some young guys come a long way in a short period of time which has helped us tremendously. I look at guys like Mitch Reinke, who are playing some really good hockey for us right now. Tyler Wotherspoon, he didn’t have the start of the year that he wanted to, but he’s played really well for us lately. Then you look up front. The production of Jordan Kyrou. Nolan Stevens before he got injured. There’s been a number of guys that have taken a real strong, positive step forward in their pro career.”
From Wotherspoon’s perspective, it’s been a nice climb from that 3-12 hole the team dug for itself in October and November.
“We were turning the puck over. We were playing a lot on our heels. I think over the last month or so since we’ve been on this roll, everybody has been playing as a team, we’re not turning the puck over as much and as a defenseman, it is a lot easier when you can trust everyone that’s on the ice. I can make a read and know that my teammate’s going to make the right play. It’s put a lot of pressure on opposing teams and I think that’s a huge difference.”
So what is it about San Antonio that has suddenly transformed the AT&T Center into a chamber of horrors for visiting teams? Veteran defenseman Wotherspoon, who sat in the opposing locker room with the Abbotsford and Stockton Heat, pointed to the atmosphere visitors encounter when they hit the ice.
“We feel comfortable at home. We love our fans,” said San Antonio newcomer defenseman Jake Walman. “Any time you have a group of people who have your back, it’s nice. It’s motivating. You don’t really hear the individual comments from the crowd, but hear it as a whole. You can feel the energy, especially when we score or do something good. The place explodes.”
Butler chimed in, “It’s a bit of travel for teams to come here. That kind of takes it toll on some teams. And also the environment,” said the Rampage captain. “Friday nights we have pretty awesome crowds and even the weekday crowds are getting better. And then down here it’s humid. It’s hot. I think it’s a little more tiring for some teams. And ice conditions aren’t always the best. And the style that we play — kinda blue collar mentality — we have our lines that play similar styles, just kinda ram it down the other team’s throat, that can wear on teams.”
Veteran defenseman Wotherspoon, who sat in the opposing locker room with the Abbotsford and Stockton Heat, pointed to the atmosphere visitors encounter when they hit the ice. “It is an intimidating building. You get scored on and the fans are pretty loud and rowdy. It can rattle an away team. It made it difficult to get into a rhythm and get comfortable here.”
Playing in San Antonio as the villain in the other jersey actually helped bring the former Calgary Flames second-round pick to the Alamo City. “It’s a great city to play in and it’s a hard building to play against (the Rampage). Every time I did come here they were a hard team to play against and I wanted to be a part of that.”
The Rampage are also a league-best 14 wins on home ice this season, going 14-6 on the year. The team with the most home-ice standing points, 29, in the AHL? Friday’s opponent, the Iowa Wild are a tough out in Des Moines, along with the Springfield Thunderbirds…but the Wild are a more pedestrian 7-6-1-3 on the road, including 0-3 here this season.
WHO NEEDS TO BE ANONYMOUS? — Many times, hockey defensemen labor in obscurity, concentrating on keeping the puck out of their net and not putting it in the other one at the other end. However, the Rampage back line is reversing that trend this season, with three of their top four scorers blueliners! Reinke is 13th in the league with 23 points, which ties him with Jordan Kyrou for the Rampage scoring lead. Then there’s Joey LaLeggia with 17 points and Wotherspoon is next with 16.
The sixth-year pro has also been a big part of the Rampage resurgence, scoring points in four straight games from the blueline, including back-to-back two-assist games to help keep the streak alive against Ontario and Texas. The Burnaby, BC native has competed in 321 AHL games in his career, and scoring points have been a part of his skill set, with 21-93-114, including a career scoring year last season in Stockton with 7-30-37.
“A lot of it for me is confidence. I also have been taught by some great coaches that have helped me learn to jump up into the play and move the puck quick and make the simple play. Just simple things like pucks on the net are big in this league. Guys are crashing, anything can happen. I try not to think about it because when you think about it, you hesitate and that’s when problems happen.”
Wotherspoon had an odd reason for developing into a defenseman — he didn’t want to rely on others on the ice, whereas forwards needed to have defensemen feed them the puck up ice.
“I still joke about it with my dad, it’s kinda funny, because when I was younger trying to feel out different positions, I always had it in the back of my mind, I hated getting beat, I hated relying on other people get back there for me, so I was always being one of the first ones back so I couldn’t be a forward. I was comfortable being a defenseman, being that second line of defense and I didn’t have the patience to be a goalie. Defense kinda suited my mindset. It seemed like a perfect position for me.”
THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING A MINOR LEAGUE HOCKEY FAN–It has to be watching guys here one night, then turn on the box and watch them on the big stage playing in the NHL. For Rampage fans, Thursday night was a special event as the St. Louis Blues hosted the vaunted Montreal Canadians. Mackenzie MacEachern got that call to head north and played with energy and effort against the Habs in his first major league contest. He also saw former Rampage teammate, Sammy Blais scored his second NHL goal against one of his childhood idols, Carey Price on a breakaway in the Blues win. Once again, St. Louis fans must be wondering why has the front office kept Jordan Binnington down on the farm all these years? Rampage fans could have told them he’s been rather special here, leading the AHL in goals against 2.08, going 11-4 with three shutouts. Binnington was exceptional again against the Habs, stopping 28 of 29 shots in the 4-1 win and has now made the save on 53 of 54 attempts as a starter after registering a shutout in his first NHL game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers. What makes Binnington’s run even more incredible is the only goal against him Thursday went in off St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo’s skate. Now, the worst thing about being a minor league hockey fan? The same as the “Best” thing…Seeing your favorite players suddenly leave to reach there, pardon the pun, goals in the NHL, thus leaving your team shorthanded and you with yet another jersey that used to be worn by now, an NHL player…it’s a double edged sword for a Rampage fan.
FUN FACT: Binnington is the first Blues goalie to allow just one goal in his first two starts. Binnington isn’t the only former Rampage goaltender to pitch a shutout in his NHL debut. Al Montoya, a highly-touted, first-round pick by the New York Rangers out of the University of Michigan, was called up by the Phoenix Coyotes and, ironically, blanked the Colorado Avalanche, 3-0 in his NHL debut March 31, 2009. Montoya has developed into one of the more reliable backup goaltenders in the NHL, although he finds himself back in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors this season.
IF YOU WANNA SEE SOMEONE HAVING A REALLY, REALLY GOOD TIME–Track down the video of Blais’ goal against Montreal. Blais, from Quebec, used to imagine playing against Canadians goalie Carey Price and Thursday night his dream came true, scoring a beautiful goal on a breakaway against his idol. His facial expression is what makes hockey the great game it is.