The expansion Allen Americans are displaying a tremendous amount of energy and jump while carrying a territorial advantage against the Odessa Jackalopes in their best-of-seven Central Hockey League semifinal series.
This is surprising in that Odessa is the more experienced team and had outperformed second place Allen by 12 points (101-89) to win the Southern Division regular season crown. But it also makes perfect sense because No. 2 seeded Allen utilizes an energetic, wide-open skating scheme that capitalizes on its speed and youth.
The Americans have, for the most part during this series, outplayed the Jackalopes (The team mascot represents an imaginary fearsome critter known as a “warrior rabbit” that is a product of North American folklore and has been described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns or deer antlers). They have outworked, outskated and outhit their adversaries from West Texas after having lost two regulation and one overtime verdict in four meetings during the regular season.
That was readily apparent during the first five minutes of Game Three in the Allen Event Center, when forward Nino Musitelli one-timed a deft pass from linemate Bruce Graham on a scintillating two-on-one break to give Allen a quick 2-0 lead.
En route to a 5-2 victory and a two-games-to-one advantage in the semifinal showdown, the Amerks were quickly reestablishing their dominant style of play that helped them win the series opener on Friday, April 9 in Odessa, and outplay the Jacks the following evening despite dropping an overtime verdict that knotted the series at a game apiece.
“Part of our plan was to get an early jump and take the game right to them,” said Graham after the Game 3 victory had thrilled more than 2,700 fans in Allen, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. “Once we were able to establish that, everything else just kind of fell into place. Everything clicked right away, and it’s fun to play when things go your way like they did tonight.”
Graham, who opened the scoring with his fourth playoff goal when he corralled the puck behind the Odessa net and circled in front to beat Jackalopes goalie Joel Martin 3:39 into the game, helped expand the lead less than a minute later when he drew the lone defender before feeding Musitelli for a picturesque marker. Musitelli also picked up three assists on the night to go with his team-leading sixth goal of the post season.
“Our line played very well (accounting for 11 points in the game), and we had three lines going great for us tonight,” Graham told reporters as he participated in the team’s mandatory post-game stationary bike conditioning exercise. “And when we have all three lines going, it’s hard for (Odessa) to keep up with us.”
Odessa, which led the entire 15-team CHL with 269 goals (Allen was eighth with 210 markers) during the regular season, capitalized on an odd man rush nine minutes into the game as Jeff Pierce scored his team-high sixth goal of the post-season. Pierce cut the lead to 2-1 after one-timing a pass from Collin Circelli past Americans goalie Chris Whitley (who made 35 saves in the game) to make it 2-1. The play was set up by Sebastien Thinel, who drew an Allen defender toward him before feeding Circelli.
“The game goes in spurts, and Odessa is very explosive offensively,” said Americans Head Coach Dwight Mullins. “Once you give them odd man rushes, their talent level enables them to capitalize, and they’ll find a way to put the puck in the net. That’s exactly what happened there, and it put them right back in the game.”
The Americans enjoyed a territorial advantage for most of the night despite being outshot 37-35. They controlled the second period flow but were unable to solve Martin until forward Christian Gaudet tallied his first marker of the post-season when he deposited a rebound of a Mike Salekin point drive to make it 3-1 with three minutes left in the session. Forward Justin Bowers upped the advantage to 4-1 less than two minutes later when he used a defenseman as a screen and connected on a 15-foot wrister that sailed inside the near post from the right wing.
“We’re skating very well, and we seem to be controlling the tempo of play,” said Bowers after netting his fifth goal of the playoffs and adding three assists. “Laredo (Allen’s first round opponent) did a better job of containing us, and our youth helps us tremendously (against Odessa). We are younger than they are, so we try to get a good jump on them every chance we can.
“We also have been very successful on our home ice all year (23-5-4, fourth best in the league during the regular season) because we feed off the energy in this building,” added Bowers. “Once the fans get going, you can feel the energy surging throughout the building.”
The Jackalopes, who are coached by former NHL forward Paul Gillis, made another run at the Americans midway through the third period.
After the Jacks controlled the puck during a two-minute power play, Pierce snuck a rebound underneath Whitley’s pad for an even strength goal that cut the lead to 4-2. But Americans defenseman Jordie Benn, the older brother of Dallas Star rookie forward Jamie Benn, scored his second of the playoffs on a slap shot through traffic that eluded Odessa’s Juha Toivonen less than a minute later to restore the three-goal lead at 5-2 and squash any hopes for a Jackalopes’ rally.
“It’s really in our favor to think positively no matter what happens, so when they scored their second goal and were on the verge of building some momentum, we didn’t flinch and we didn’t let our guard down,” said Graham, who finished with a goal and two assists. “So even when they score a tough goal like that, we maintain our composure and our positive mindset. But that whole experience reminded us that we have to stay out of the box, because they use those power plays to regain the tempo of the game. We have to watch ourselves in Game 4.”
In the series opener on Friday night, Musitelli and Captain Jarret Lukin scored second period goals and Salekin added a shorthanded tally in the third period as the Americans rallied from a 2-1 deficit to a 4-2 lead. Lukin finished with two goals, while Thinel and Mike Ramsay lit the lamp for Odessa in the 4-3 verdict. Allen netminder Chris Whitley made 35 saves while martin stopped 26 stops.
In Game Two in Odessa on Saturday night, Bowers and forward Liam Huculak scored 1st and third period goals, respectively to tie the score before Pierce’s overtime game-winning goal gave the Jacks a 3-2 win. Jean Bourbeau and Kenny Bernard also scored for Odessa as Whitley made 42 saves, while Martin turned aside 29.
Games Four and Five are scheduled for the Allen Event Center on Friday and Saturday night, respectively. Games 6-7 will be played in Odessa on April 19 and 21, respectively.
In the CHL’s other semifinal series, Northern Division regular season champion Rapid City (South Dakota) has a two-games-to-one lead over Bossier-Shreveport (Louisiana).