Even during a season in which they lead the entire Central Hockey League in goals scored and standings points, the Allen Americans do not fancy themselves a “franchise of winners” or a “front running team.” In fact, they seem to take a very businesslike, no-nonsense approach to the rink each and every night.
The franchise does have the stamp of a winner. After battling conference champion Odessa to the wire a year ago before upending the Jackalopes in the post-season en route to the Ray Miron President’s Cup Championship round, they are clearly the class of hockey’s premier Class AA circuit this season.
Still, the Amerks wear their success not like a $1,000 suit, but more like a borrowed tuxedo, ensuring that they arrive at the right place and the right time.
“I think (our success is dependent on) our depth and team speed,” said Coach Dwight Mullins after Allen’s star power helped offset a somewhat lackadaisical effort in a 4-3 win over visiting Arizona on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day despite being outshot, 42-19.
“It’s really hard to (compare this year’s club to last year’s). The way we approach things are kind of day-to-day. If you don’t do that, it gets to be a long season. It’s hard to pinpoint, other than to say our guys are competitors and they want to win. And they come to work.”
The Americans seem primed to skate deep into the post-season once again although, as Mullins insists, “there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played (in the regular season).” Through 35 games, Allen had an astounding 27-7-1 record good for tops in the Berry Conference standings.
Leading Bossier-Shreveport by 12 points, Allen had lit the lamp a league high 156 times through January 17. Rival coaches struggle to plan their defense against a club that receives steady contributions from a combination of returning skaters and newcomers on a star-studded forward line rotation.
For example, CHL All Star Bruce Graham has duplicated his productivity of a year ago with a team high 43 points (including 25 assists), while fellow alums Nino Musitello (team high 20 goals) and Colton Yellow Horn (team high 29 assists) are the Amerks’ second leading scorers with 42 points each. Returnees Tobias Whelan (13 goals, 34 points) and Jarret Lukin (11 goals, 25 points) have also provided offensive support.
Newcomers Dave Bonk (14 goals, 40 points and two cups of coffee with Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League), Judd Blackwater (15 goals, 38 points) and David Nimmo (26 points) set up shop to assist on and score goals without skipping a beat after joining the club prior to this season.
The Americans also receive solid offensive support from defensemen such as newcomers David Strathman (8 goals, 24 points), Justin DaCosta (17 points) Mike Berube (13 points), and Erik Adams (21 points). DaCosta (63 penalty minutes) and forward Kip Brennan (94 PIM) have also added some muscle to a team that already arrives at the rink with plenty of grit.
“Comparing (last year’s team to this year’s), I think we’re a lot more offensive this year,” said last year’s heroic starting goalie Chris Whitley, who returned to post three straight wins in mid-January (including the victory over Arizona) from an undisclosed lower body injury suffered in late November. “I know for me, it’s a lot easier when you’re scoring four, five and six goals a game.
“But defensively, we have to clamp down a little in our defensive zone,” he said in reference to Allen’s 113 goals allowed, which ranks ninth in the 18-team CHL. “It’s a bit of a grind for us, but we just have to do it.”
Rookie Adrien LeMay, who recently rejoined the Dallas Stars’ AHL affiliate in Austin, Texas for the third time this season, made a name for himself with Whitely on the injured list. The first year pro posted an impressive 11-2-1 won-loss-overtime loss slate to go with a solid 3.10 goals against average, while Scott Campbell contributed five wins in seven decisions.
Despite having his team sitting atop the CHL, Mullins is not gloating – not in the least.
“The thing is we all know what happened to the first place team (Odessa) last year,” he said. “We have to respect that. We talk about it a lot. I don’t want to compare apples to apples, and we just want to mind our own farm. The playoffs are a whole different story, especially first two rounds (bet three out of five). If you’re not ready going in, you could be in for a difficult time.
“Yes, our number one goal is to finish as high as we can, we want first place and home ice is a key,” Mullins added as the team prepared to depart on a three game road trip to division cellar dwellers Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. “And the sun shines a lot more in the winning situation than if you’re losing. Winning makes things easier in some ways on everybody. But you still have to respect what you’re trying to accomplish.”