The Allen Americans are of the opinion that their drive for five has kicked into overdrive.
Winners of two straight ECHL Kelly Cup playoff championships and four consecutive post-season chalices spanning two leagues, GM-Coach Steve Martinson’s proud skaters are primed for another skate deep into the playoffs.
“We’ve been playing great hockey,” said co-captain Gary Steffes, whose team finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. “The truth is, we’ve raised our play to a higher level down the stretch of the regular season. We have the confidence that no matter what position we are in during a game, we can win that game. We had a great final month (of March), and it helped that no matter who we played, they were really coming after us. That put us in the mood to battle and fight during every game, which made it feel like we were already in the playoffs.”
Allen (49-17-4-2) notched the most wins in team history while overtaking Colorado by five points late in the season to capture the Mountain Division. Their 104 points ranked them 2nd in the league behind Western Conference foe Toledo’s 106, and ranks second in team history behind the 2014-15 Americans’ 106.
The Americans won or earned at least a point in 16 consecutive games following their last loss, a 3-2 verdict to visiting Rapid City on Feb. 19. Their only blemish during that impressive 15-0-1 run was a 3-2 overtime loss at Missouri on March 22. Martinson’s squad posted a 19-1-2 mark in its final 22 games, and went an almost unheard of 24-2-3 since mid-January.
The Americans enter their best of seven opening round series with the Utah Grizzlies Wednesday night at the Allen Event Center as the ECHL’s second leading goal scoring team with 294, trailing only Toledo’s 302 red lights.
Co-captain forward Chad Costello also captured his third straight ECHL scoring title with 122 points (by 34 points) while earning his 700th career point. Costello, who captured the ECHL’s CCM Leading Scorer Award, also amassed a league-best 89 assists that also eclipsed the 88 total points tallied by second leading scorer Casey Pierro-Zabotel, who last season helped Allen win the Kelly Cup before joining Colorado.
But Allen is hardly a one-trick pony, Utah is sure to discover. The Americans can roll out high scoring forwards such as Greger Hanson, whose career high 76 points (including 35 goals) tied him for 11th place in the league scoring race. They also have Spencer Asuchak (26 goals and a career high 66 points), Bryan Moore (27 goals and 51 points) and Steffes (21 goals, 47 points). Defensemen David Makowski (16 goals, career high 50 points), Joel Chouinard (10 goals, career high 44 points) and Eric Roy (13 goals, 35 points) are also offensive minded.
The forward lines also feature solid two-way skaters in Zach Hall (11 goals and +18 in 35 games), Josh Brittain (eight goals, +12 in 33 games), Wade MacLeod (eight goals in 13 games), Alex Krushelnyski (five goals, 10 points in nine games), Tanner Eberle (10 goals, +18), Tyler Barnes (11 goals in 26 games), and Dyson Stevenson (10 goals, +26).
Allen can also bring the muscle, as its league-leading 1,432 penalty minutes will attest. Forward Derek Mathers, whose 274 penalty minutes led the circuit, keeps opponents honest. Moore (140 minutes), Eberly (108) and Stevenson (106) also play with an edge.
On the blue line, Mike Gunn (+20), Travis Brown (+16), and Mike Liberati (+18) have improved the team’s defense as the season continued.
Goalie Riley Gill, who led Allen to their last two post-season flags and has three ECHL titles to his credit (having won earlier with Reading), posted his best season with a 32-7-2 record, a 2.22 goals against average ranked him second in the league. A .933 save percentage and three shutouts. San Jose prospect Jamie Murray was also stellar at times, posting a 16-10-2 record with a 3.41 goals against average, .904 save percentage and two whitewashes.
“We have a championship culture in our locker room,” said Steffes. “We know what it takes to win. Guys hold each other accountable for that. When situations arise where we are not getting the culture (through our heads), we deal with it. We have a team first mentality that guys have bought into. Sure, we want individual guys to do well, and to take that next step upward to the AHL, but our approach is a team first mentality.
“Everyone on our team fits into that culture,” Steffes added. “You can have all the skill in the world, but if you don’t have the culture, you can’t win as a team. We have that, and that’s why we’ve won so consistently when things came down to the wire. We have a lot of depth, and these guys have each other’s backs. We are building confidence and chemistry.”
Steffes did caution that there is one pitfall that could undermine Allen’s chances to add a fifth straight cup to its trophy case. “If we think we can just show up and will win, or we just look at our roster and we’re so good on paper that the victory will just happen, it will sink us,” he said. “We can’t think that we don’t have to show up.
“In fact, we will have to raise our game because everyone else is raising their game,” he added. “If we raise our game and humbly approach the playoffs and play with passion and fire and be better than we are….in a sense, we have to go to war. Every team is incredibly good. It’ll be an absolute ware. Nothing can be taken for granted. We have to be ready.”