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San Antonio Rampage stay afloat in Calder Cup race

(San Antonio) – The Rampage welcomed back A.J. Greer back into the lineup and the former 2nd round pick didn’t disappoint, helping San Antonio remain in the playoff picture with a 4-0 win over Cleveland.

Greer, who missed the last five games and hadn’t suited up since March 2nd, jammed in a loose puck in the first period and fought the Monsters Cameron Gaunce in the third period, after Greer slammed a Cleveland player into the boards.

The Rampage also got contributions from a couple of former Colorado Eagles as Michael Joly took first star honors with a goal and two assists, and goaltender Joe Cannata pitched the shutout, kicking out all 20 Cleveland shots.

“Eric (Veilleux) has been playing me a lot, on the power play, trying to figure out how to play me,” said Joly, who wears a popular number in San Antonio sports – 21 (Tim Duncan). “I’m trying to take any chance I have to give all I have.”

Joly has 39 goals in 49 games with the Eagles, which still leads the ECHL despite missing action with the Eagles for the past two weeks. Manchester’s Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman and Atlanta’s Phil Lane are a distant second with 31. Fans have noticed Joly’s confidence grow at the AHL level as not only his ice time has inched up, but the quality minutes he’s getting.

“To stay here awhile, not just getting sent down and getting called up and then down, it feels good,” said Joly, who admitted his defensive shortcomings may have to be overcome if he’s to be considered for any consistent advancement.

“I can bring a very offensive game. I’m probably not the best defensive guy, but I think I’m doing pretty good right now and I’m trying to keep that up,” said the Gatineau, Quebec native, who scored 40 points in just 29 games last season with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits – yeah, Swamp Rabbits, after nabbing six goals and six assists in a 28 game AHL stint with the Hartford Wolfpack.

So the kid can light it up. Perhaps Joly can be the offensive contributor that helps put the Rampage on a playoff run these last 16 games of the season now that his confidence has been restored.

Cannata has had a weird season. He’s a capable goaltender acquired last year by the Avs from the Washington organization for defenseman Cody Corbett, now playing in Austria, and he’s the go-to guy when Spencer Martin or St. Louis prospect Ville Husso are not available. Sunday’s shutout followed his performance Friday where he limited the Manitoba Moose to one goal for just under 59 minutes before the Winnipeg Jets AHL club tied the score and won it in the first minute of overtime. He also had his season debut in relief of Martin on Oct. 28th, where he played the entire third period and never faced a shot in a 5-3 loss to San Diego.

But his record is now 2-0-1 after a Dec. 2 win over Iowa and Sunday’s blanking of the Monsters, who were coming off a 6-5 overtime win over the Texas Stars Friday.

“The whole game guys were sacrificing doing whatever they could to help me keep the puck out of the net,” said the former Vancouver Canucks sixth round pick in 2009-10.

With a rare 4-0 second period lead, the Rampage needed to play smart in the third and not give the Monsters any ideas of a surprise comeback.

“Just play the right way. Guys don’t need to do too much to get more goals, it’s more about playing the right way…get pucks in deep and forechecking, backchecking and making simple plays. The guys did a good job with that,” said the Merrimack College grad who competed in the Hockey East Conference.

When it comes to any playoff hopes for the Rampage? “We have an uphill climb. It’s just a game-by-game mentality. You need two points every night you play and I think the guys did a real good job focusing, playing a full-60, which is what you need to win in this league.”

Cannata had his best season in Utica in 2015-16, playing 40 games and going 20-13-6 with a 2.52 GAA and two shutouts. His last AHL whitewash was in Hershey last season, where he went 11-5-1 with a 3.23 GAA when he was acquired by Colorado. This season, he’s one of the reasons the Eagles are in a great position to repeat their Kelly Cup magic in their final ECHL season, going 18-4-1 with a 2.13 GAA and two shutouts.

Andrew Agozzino scored the other Rampage goal to give him a team-high 17 and he’s now found the net in four of the last six games. He also leads the team in scoring with 35 points.

Now the playoff picture. We’ll have a much better idea whether this club has the moxie for a playoff run. They play the Moose again on Tuesday and that’s a winnable game against the Western Conference leader. Silly thought? Perhaps, but after jumping out of the gate with a 31-10-3-2 record, the Moose have come back to earth with a pedestrian 7-7-1-2 mark.

They follow up with a home-and-home Friday/Saturday with the Texas Stars, who give up a lot of goals (they are one of two Western Conference teams to allow 200+ -- Cleveland at 212 and them at 201), but they score a ton of them, a division-leading 194. Prime example this weekend, they lost in overtime to Cleveland, 6-5, but then beat the Moose Saturday, 6-4!

The Rampage get a break before hosting Stockton the following Fri/Sat and can actually write their own post-season script with wins over the Heat both nights.

The key to the deal – they cannot afford to give up any standing points! They must win their games in regulation and foil opponents chances of gaining any ground, since all three of their upcoming opponents are ahead of them and someone has to come down to make room for the Rampage.