The last hockey team to capture two straight Central Hockey League President’s Cup titles is playing better hockey this fall in its inaugural ECHL campaign than it did either of the previous two springs.
The Allen Americans stood at a brilliant 16-4-0-1 (W-L-OTL-SOL) atop the ECHL’s Central Division nearing the one-third point of their 72-game regular season schedule with 33 points, four more than runnerup Tulsa. (The Americans and their six surviving CHL colleagues joined the ECHL before the regular season to comprise one of two ECHL Western Conference divisions).
Their impressive standing was fueled by an explosive eight-game winning streak and 13 wins in a 16-game stretch that began on Nov. 14. This is not surprising for a six-year old franchise who as members of the CHL twice were the top regular season team and qualified for the playoffs every season en route to the two Cup conquests.
This year’s squad is a mirror image of coach/GM Steve Martinson’s passion for puck possession and passion on the ice. In fact, this may be his most passionate squad; every member aggressively battles for the disc in an ill humor. The Americans win most puck battles behind the net and along the boards by performing at a fever pitch highlighted by the “attitude” that makes them think playoff time has already arrived.
“I think we’re just trying to skate together now,” said Allen defenseman Tyler Ludwig, a fourth-year American who was named November’s ECHL Plus Performer of the Month with a +12 rating. “Before (the winning streak), we told one another we’d get the goals and points individually, but that we had to play a better team game. Now, we’re playing together much better, and collectively, so the goals and assists and points are starting to come. It’s reflected in our play and in our (first place) standing.”
Allen’s stellar early-season play is characterized by an effective two-pass breakout scheme from the boards to a breaking forward who races through mid-ice that both seals off its defensive zone from forecheckers while fueling an explosive surge through neutral ice and into the opposing offensive zone.
Once inside the opposing blue line, the Amerks charge the opposing net with a vengeance to convert passes from the corners and boards, and to redirect or pounce upon rebounds of shots launched from defensemen at the points.
“We have a lot of guys who play with passion, and who want to win every night,” stressed Ludwig, who recently missed three games with an injury during which his team won twice and lost a shootout. “They approach the game, and they play the game with a lot of pride. And that’s why you’re seeing us play the way we are performing.”
One of the steadiest performers on the Americans’ backline is Tyler’s twin brother, Trevor, whose +17 ranking is one of eight on the squad in double digits. “Trevor is one of the better skaters in the league,” Tyler said of his brother, who has missed considerable time the last season and a half due to several injuries. “He knows when to jump up (into the offense), and he’s effective defensively. He has great skills and knows his role on this team, which is to use his legs at both ends of the rink.” (Tyler and Trevor are the sons of former Dallas Stars’ backliner Craig Ludwig).
Allen’s 95 goals ranked second behind only Toledo’s 102 in the ECHL, and its top two scorers also led the league as of Dec. 14. Former Colorado Eagles and Tulsa Oilers wings and linemates Jack Combs (17 goals, including a Dec. 10 four-goal outing at home, and a team-high 22 assists for a team-leading 39 points) and Chad Costello (12-20-32) were clicking at a nearly point-and-a-half per game clip.
“They are one of the highest scoring combos in history (at this level of hockey),” said Martinson, who signed both during the off-season. “They are fulfilling my expectations of putting on a scoring clinic while we have them together.”
Martinson also traded with ECHL member Cincinnati for the team’s third leading scorer, Gregor Hanson (12-13-25), at the outset of the regular season. Hanson, who was loaned to AHL Oklahoma City (Edmonton) on Dec. 13, was a mainstay on last year’s Cup squad with 17 points in as many playoff games. In 2012-13 he led Wichita to a sudden death overtime loss to Allen in Game Seven of the President’s Cup Finals. “Gregor was one of our top young players last season, and he played a huge role in our championship run,” said Martinson.
Another newcomer to Allen, former Tulsa and Bakersfield sniper Gary Steffes, also has provided secondary scoring with 16 red lights and 24 points to rank fourth in scoring. And, the blue line corps adds balanced scoring with outstanding point play from the likes of Kevin Young (15 points), Tyler Ludwig and Aaron Gens (14 each) and Justin Baker (13).
In goal, Riley Gill has been spectacular with a 12-3-0-1 mark, a 2.21 goals against average tying him for fourth highest in the ECHL, a .925 save percentage and one shutout. Gill spent part of the last two seasons with the ECHL’s Reading Royals, and will continue to share the puck-stopping duties with Aaron Dell.
“Passion and pride are our greatest attributes,” said Tyler Ludwig. “We really just like to play for each other and to help each other. We know the points and individual achievements are gratifying, but working together as a team is what leads to the individual and team achievements.”
With so many standout performers, Martinson figures to lose a number of skaters to AHL promotions, and undoubtedly has taken steps to fill the pipeline as appropriate. Allen has already lost and regained goalie Dell (who pitched a shutout Dec. 13 vs. Brampton in his first game back) as a result of an injury to San Jose goalie Alex Stalock. Dell was the CHL’s 2012-13 Most Outstanding Goaltender and starting netminder for Allen’s first of two straight President Cup titles. The Americans, who are in the first year of an agreement with the AHL Worcester Sharks as well as the NHL San Jose franchise, previously had working agreements with the Stars and Colorado Avalanche.
Two nine-point scorers, Cup-winning alum (center) Spencer Asuchak (Providence, Boston’s top affiliate) and Dallas native and rookie right wing Austin Smith (Norfolk, Anaheim’s top farm club) have been playing in the American Hockey League.