Story by Tony Uminski
So, what do you think of the Rampage’s 2-0 start over the weekend? Pretty cool, right? The team played very well, having a letdown in the opening period Sunday against Tucson, and getting down, 2-0 to the visiting Roadrunners. But then a beauty of a five-goal run put the Runners on the run, so to speak as San Antonio cruised to the win.
Before you start carving Nathan Walker’s name onto the Calder Cup, and I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, the Rampage began last season with an impressive 4-0 shutout of perennial Cup competitor Grand Rapids – only to lose the next eight straight. That’s a franchise-worst 1-8 clip, and a hole the team could never dig out of the rest of the way. Another way to look at that start—the Rampage didn’t get their second win of the season until just before Halloween.
But this team seems different. A 2-0 start help jettison the 2014-2015 Rampage under Tom Rowe into the AHL playoffs, the last time the club got their skates wet in late April. They’ve had some recent decent starts as well, going 6-1 as early as two years ago, only to fall flat under Eric Veilleux. The 2015-16 Page jumped out to a 4-1-1 October record, only to come down to earth come March.
In their other most recent foray into the rarified air of post-season AHL delight, 2011-12, the Rampage stumbled to a 4-8 record under Chuck Weber, winning seven straight in January to get back on track.
In other words, opening weekend success is great to enjoy, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, after all, the Texas Stars won their home opener in 2011, 7-0 over the Oklahoma City Barons, only to lose to that same team a week later in OKC, 10-1. That was only one of three seasons the Stars have missed the playoffs after that lopsided win.
Just based on the two games against traditionally decent teams – the Moose have always given the Rampage fits and the Roadrunners have found out the Rampage are a likable foe, winning three of the last four meetings. So watching the Rampage play consistently smart, competitive hockey had to warm the heart of the forever faithful, hoping this will be the season they’ll see their heroes snag the franchise’s fifth ticket to the post-season. And here’s why I feel they have a good shot to do so.
Two words – Ville Husso
Not sure who was inside that #35 jersey last season, but we got to see vintage Ville this weekend when Husso was the toast of the American Hockey League the last two months of the 2017-18 season. Yes, he was hurt last season. But when he returned, Husso struggled and when your goaltender choices at the time were a confidence-shattered Ville, a gangly journeyman who helped give the team some hope prior to the rodeo road trip (2-8 for those keeping score at home) in Jared Coreau and a couple of kids not ready for prime time, head coach Drew Bannister must have looked to the sky for divine intervention making out his lineup card.
This year, not so much. Husso has been huge. The three shots that beat him were not fluky. His positioning has been precise. The glove’s been quick – ever notice when he gloves the puck, he just stands there like “nothing to see here” nonchalance while extending the mitt casually for the linesman to retrieve? That’s vintage Ville. And he’s back and when you have a backstop playing at a high end – see Binnington, Jordan 2018-19, Stanley Cup Champion, St. Louis Blues for a reference point – your chances of extending your season past April go up exponentially.
Kudos abound – this Nathan Walker guy – does anyone else see a strong resemblance to one Rocco Grimaldi here? The former Aussie puck carrier is all over the place, taking (and winning) draws, standing around the giants in front of the net and getting two “dirty” goals – the kind the Rampage haven’t accomplished in awhile.
This Saugus, Massachusetts kid, Mike Vecchione also never stops – isn’t it kinda neat to see the team you’re cheering for, win puck battles and zipping around outskating the other guys? A refreshing change and it has a strong, contagious effect on the other guys watching from the bench.
And here’s the joy of watching hockey return this weekend – the Rampage had guys playing in front of the opponent’s net!!! What a concept! Walker, Grimaldi, Zach Nastasiuk, Nick Lappin (#36), and old faithful Ryan Olsen and Jordan Nolan all hounded the crease and distracted the bad guy’s goalies all weekend. Refreshing.
The Russian Connection
Watching the two Russian kids was kinda fun and frustrating at times. Newcomer Alexey Toropchenko and Klim Kostin, both born just months before the turn of the century – how old does that make you feel? – seemed to click when on the same line. But both also go “Malkin” out there – coasting and seemingly wishing to be in a Moscow café rather than playing the right-wing. If they can ever figure out how to harness the boundless energy of teammates, perhaps they’ll be making a bigger mark here, and sometime soon up there in STL.
Case in point with Kostin – he’s nowhere to be seen as an impact player, and suddenly out of that self-imposed hibernation, Kostin makes an appearance, throws a few body checks and gets the opponents off their game. He also missed from in close – one he has to bury – and showcased some dipsy-doo moves only to be bumped off the puck. Kostin can be the best player on the ice. He just needs to realize that.
Topo, like Klim, is 6-3 but doesn’t have the mean streak Kostin has shown over the past two years. But, like Klim, showed flashes of what we can expect to see if both players can somehow discover that consistency they need to move up. Let’s see it here first, guys! Dent the scoresheet and show the brass you have what it takes. But you have to love Klim – did you see how excited he got, hugging Husso at the end of both games? You don’t fake that kind of emotion and “buying into it” passion for the game.
Niko’s slapshot – let’s see that more…can someone adjust the sights on Jake Walman’s stick, please! Jake was up in the play, on the blueline, a much more active player than last year’s disastrous (-31) San Antonio debut, but he has to hit the net! Crazy, but he somehow led the Rampage in shots taken Friday night with five…Tanner Kaspick also showed he can play some hockey as well as star in the production team’s Marshmellow stacking time killer on the video board, coming up with nice set-ups that helped light the lamp both nights…Jake Dotchin showed he wasn’t one to trifle with this season, as he decided to take on the entire Runners bench Sunday…Mitch Reinke hasn’t lost a step. If he’s around for most of the season, he’ll match his 45 points easily with another full season and a stop in California for the AHL All-Star Game for sure.
And one final note about the grizzled veteran – one Jordan Nolan. He gets my vote for the C this season, but I challenge you to watch #71 on the ice. I did Sunday. He’s 30. His consistent NHL minutes marker is clicking down. He owns three rings – he’ll get his third Friday night – and he absolutely leads by example. Watch him in the corners. Watch him around the net. Keep your eye on 71 for just a few shifts, and your hockey knowledge will increase 10-fold. The guy is a pro. And he doesn’t take any crap. From Anyone.
P.S. – Last season’s second win? Came against the Chicago Wolves, who lost this past Saturday, 8-3. At home. To Grand Rapids. You know their coach, former Rampage tough guy, Rocky Thompson that inaugural season, wasn’t happy. Get ready to see the Cup. And get ready to fend off some feisty Wolves, who most likely need to prove to that snarly coach they can play his game. See ya at the rink!