Remember when Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora looked incredulous when a reporter asked him about his team’s playoff? Mora’s voice went up a few octaves as he responded, “Playoffs? You talking playoffs? Playoffs? I don’t know if we’ll win another game.”
Rampage fans through the years have pretty much felt Mora’s pain as the team has only seen Calder Cup playoff action just four times in 16 years and this year, the prognosis is still up in the air. The team broke even on their extended 12-game Rodeo Road Trip with one more contest Wednesday night in Ontario (LAK). Then begin the 19-game stretch run for the post-season right in the thick of things in the AHL’s Western Conference.
The Rampage have won only one of five playoff series in their history and the last taste of post-season play for their fans was a surprising first round exit in the 2014-15 campaign after the team won the West Division, their only divisional championship. That year, with Olympian Bobby Butler, current Florida Panthers forwards Connor Brickley, Vincent Trocheck and a Panthers second-round pick - yes, that Rocco Grimaldi kid - leading the way, the team looked poised for a deep playoff run. But the hockey gods said no, thanks to an ill-advised decision to begin their best of five, first round series vs. Oklahoma City (now Bakersfield) in the Sooner State. Two games on the road is not a way the ‘home’ team should start the playoffs.
Grimaldi’s second period goal gave the Rampage a 2-1 third period lead in Game One only to have the Barons respond with four unanswered goals. Fans knew the club was in trouble, but discovered new hope as San Antonio raced out to a 3-0 lead with 14 minutes left in regulation of Game 2, and then found a way to give up another four-spot to lose in overtime! OKC won after Brickley, Corbin Knight and John McFarland supposedly put the game on ice.
With their backs firmly against that proverbial wall, the Rampage couldn’t get the puck past journeyman netminder Richard Bachman in their lone playoff home game that series, waiting until just under a minute to tie the game, 1-1 on a Dylan Olson marker. But the season came to a crashing end when Jujhar Kaira scored at 5:01 of overtime for a Barons series sweep and the end of the Panthers partnership in San Antonio.
Enter the Avalanche commitment and two consecutive seasons where the post-season was a pipe dream by the end of January. Now, here we are, on the precipice of maybe something different…hockey in April’s third week in the Alamo City.
Here’s what the Rampage have to do to make life complicated for their ownership group, the Spurs, who’ve had exclusive use of the AT&T Center after tax day.
ONE: Do what they’ve been doing -- win at home! Now that the team is heading back to Texas after playing in four different time zones in February, the Rampage play 13 of the last 19 in San Antonio. The Rampage have the best home record in the Pacific Division! At 15-7-3-0 this year, San Antonio has found the hometown mojo, although a so-so 5-3-2-0 January put a damper on some fans expectations. They must re-discover the magic of home cooking if they hope to extend their season.
TWO: Winning at home will be great, but four of those six games away from SA are very winnable as well. The Rampage have enjoyed a huge advantage over their intra-state rival Texas Stars this year, going 7-2. Yes, the Stars have improved as the season has progressed, but that record stands and the Rampage have found a way to make Stars goaltender Landon Bow look Swiss cheesy in an otherwise breakout year for the Dallas rookie. Two of the roadies are up the road in Cedar Park.
Two of the remaining four away games will be back in California, where the Rampage are 12-23-1 over the last three years (only six of the wins in regulation). They’ll play the Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls, the same last two opponents on the long February sojourn. But after those toughies, SA heads to Cleveland to meet the first-to-worst Monsters, who currently have the third worst record in the league, and worst in the Western Conference. At 18-28-4-3, the Monsters don’t scare anyone and have gone from Calder Cup champs two years ago to also-rans this season. No telling their competitive drive come the first weekend in April and the Rampage beat Cleveland 4-2 here in December.
THREE: Unless the St. Louis Blues throw a clog in the drain, Ville Husso should be the Rampage go-to goaltender the rest of the season. Husso saw his teammates outshot 44-11 Saturday night in Tucson yet come out with a 1-0 overtime win thanks to the Blues rookie masked man, who leads all first-year AHL netminders in goals against and save percentage. Spencer Martin, who has just been recalled by the Avalanche, has struggled the past two months, seeing his goals against creep over the “Al Montoya Line” (3.00 and up) at 3.06.
FOUR: Home games could be high on the W side with three vs. the Stars and single matches with the Rockford IceHogs, who before last month’s road trip, were offensively-challenged here with only two unassisted goals in two games in December, and the aforementioned Monsters, whose seven road wins are the lowest in the league. However, the Chicago Wolves come in this weekend for two games after going 26-5-2-1 in their last 34 games. Stockton is in eighth place right now in the conference, so that two-game set against the Heat on March 30-31 will be vital. Oh yeah, last year’s Cup winners, the Grand Rapids Griffins come calling in the last week of the season. The Red Wings top farm team has found their groove again with an 8-1-0-1 run over their last 10 games. And those two games vs the conference leading Manitoba Moose on Mar. 16/20 will be problematic.
FIVE: Now that the NHL trading deadline has passed with only the Chris Bigras-Ryan Graves deal that currently disrupts the roster, how the major league clubs manage their farmhands will determine whether San Antonio has playoff life. If the Avs get healthy, we might see a couple regulars returned to San Antonio. Or another par-for-the-course disappointing finish.