Just when it seemed the Allen Americans were on the verge of running away with the ECHL’s Central Conference title, the plot thickened with the sudden departure of the league’s leading scorer to a Swedish league team. Those howls of hope you heard emanated in Midwestern U.S. hockey outposts such as Tulsa, Quad City and Wichita.
In a move that shocked Allen’s devoted fan base, ECHL All Star forward Jack Combs is taking his 22 goals and league-leading 56 points overseas after accepting an offer to play for Bjorkloven of the second tier Swedish Hockey Allsvenskan league. He departed one day after leading his team to their sixth straight victory, a 3-1 verdict over the Missouri Mavericks at Allen Event Center on Jan. 11.
“It’s tough to lose our leading scorer,” said Americans coach Steve Martinson, who celebrated his 1,300th career game behind the bench (including stops in San Diego, CA, Rockford and Chicago, IL, and Elmira, NY) in the Jan. 11 triumph. “Jack helped us get to where we are now, and I wasn’t expecting to have him all season (anticipating a possible call up by the American Hockey League’s Worcester franchise, an affiliate of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks). “But I’m optimistic that we can attempt to fill the void because it’s easier to recruit new players to a first place team.”
The team suspended Combs, which is a formal process enabling Allen to retain the high scoring forward’s rights in the event that he returns to the United States. The St. Louis, Missouri native was the linchpin of the Americans’ offense, scoring a league leading six game winning goals and controlling the pace and direction of the club’s attack. Combs turned pro in 2009-10 played in 146 ECHL games and 144 games more in the AHL, where he registered 75 points with six different clubs.
Combs’s new team is based in the city of Umea just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, has been in operation since 1970 and has produced NHL players such as Calle Johansson, Ulf Dahlen, and Patrik and Peter Sumdstrom, according to a blog devoted to the Allen Americans (allenamericansblog.blogspot.com).
His departure could have a profound effect on the Americans’ offense, which is among the league leaders with 138 goals. Specifically, forward Chad Costello, the league’s Player of the Month in December who by default becomes the ECHL’s new leading scorer with 54 points and his league-high 37 assists, must answer the challenging of synergizing his own scoring talents with someone else.
The Americans, based in suburban Dallas, Texas and winners of the last two CHL President’s Cup championships prior to merging with the ECHL, had amassed an impressive 24-5-1-2 (wins-losses-overtime losses-shootout losses) mark to open an 11-point lead over Wichita in the Central Division of the Western Conference.
Combs had notched a goal and an assist while Costello added two helpers in the Jan. 11 win that gives Allen a 6-0-0-0 season record over Missouri, which is led by first year head coach Richard Matvichuk – the former Allen assistant to Martinson and a standout defenseman who helped fuel the Dallas Stars’ glory years.
Allen has been on a 14-1-1-2 tear since Dec. 2, earning 31 of a possible 36 standings points despite losing high scoring forwards Gregor Hanson, Austin Smith and Spencer Asuchuk to American Hockey League promotions earlier this season,
The Americans are a resilient team that stays on course even when they fall behind in a game. Other key scorers include bruiser Ian Schultz (a linemate of Costello and Combs), who has 13 goals, 27 points and 61 penalty minutes, Gary Steffes (21 goals, 32 points) and 3rd year American and team captain Jamie Schaafsma (23 points, seven goals).
Another key to the Allen offense is its ability to generate offense from the points, where defensemen Kevin Young (21 points), Aaron Gens (24), Justin Baker (22) and Tyler Ludwig (21) launch numerous shots that create rebounds when they aren’t finding the back of the twine.
“Although we lost some guys to the AHL (and elsewhere), we’re playing solid,” said goalie Riley Gill, the former Reading Royals netminder who has posted an impressive 19-4-1-1 mark. “If we continue to simplify our game, our talent will speak for itself. We’re solid, we have good coaching and leadership and lots of character guys. But we have more than half a season to go, so we have to keep that focus and cohesiveness.”
Forward Brett Lyon keeps things honest on ice with his ECHL-leading 190 penalty minutes, while defensemen Gens (86) and Garrett Carke (82) also provide protection and muscle.
“I don’t think things will ever get boring for us,” Gill said. “You never get tired of winning, and you hate the feeling of losing. And we know we’ll go through some stretches where we’re not playing our best hockey, but we’ll always have the goal to be one of the best teams (in the ECHL). To do that, we have to keep getting better every day.
“Every time we take the ice, we think we have a target on our back, and we know we’ll get other teams’ best efforts game in and game out,” added Gill. “So we have to be up for every team we play.”