Dominant DebutsOct 9, 2019
Opening Night at the AT&T Center offered plenty of ‘new’ for the Rampage and their fans. Ten players in the lineup on October 4th were set to make their Rampage debuts, ranging from rookie Dakota Joshua’s first professional game to 300-game veteran Nathan Walker. That doesn’t even include rookie Alexey Toropchenko, who played one AHL game two seasons ago.
While many were likely prepared for the newest Rampage additions to take time settling in, it was actually those fresh faces that made the largest impact in pushing San Antonio to a 2-0-0 start.
“I think for the team, we’re off to a 2-0-0 start, which is definitely good. And when you get a bunch of new guys together, it’s definitely good to get off to a start like that,” said Walker, who had three points in his first two Rampage games following 300 games as a Hershey Bear.
“When a team gets off to such a great start, it definitely lightens the mood coming to the rink the next week.”
Six players notched their first points in a Rampage uniform during Opening Weekend. Walker and Mike Vecchione each scored in back-to-back games, while Zach Nastasiuk netted two goals in Sunday afternoon’s comeback win over the Tucson Roadrunners. Defensemen Jake Dotchin and Derrick Pouliot set up Walker’s tallies, and Joshua earned his first professional point with an assist on Nastasiuk’s second goal.
“This is my first time being with a new team,” said Vecchione, who spent the first two years of his career with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. “I definitely want to have a hot start and be productive, to do the little things right. Whether it’s face-offs, power plays, killing penalties- whatever it is, I want to come in and make an impact. For all of us to be doing that this early is pretty sweet.”
The Rampage are 2-0-0 for the first time since 2014-15, and only the fifth time in franchise history. A team that tied a franchise record with 23 home victories last season, the Rampage opened 2019-20 with two impressive showings at the AT&T Center, though the victories were hardly alike.
Vecchione had the season’s first goal on Opening Night and Walker had the winner in a 2-1 win against the Manitoba Moose, a night in which the Rampage outshot the Moose 35-23 and largely dominated play. Two days later the Rampage fell behind 2-0 to Tucson before Vecchione and Walker again got the Ramage going.
“I think [Ville] Husso kept us in that game,” said Walker. “He made some big saves that could’ve made it a 3-0 or 4-0 period, and a much deeper hole to climb out of. But we have a lot of fire power in this room and we went on to score five unanswered and win the game.”
With a bouncing puck off his shin guard, Vecchione notched his second power play goal to get the Rampage within one. He’s the first player in the AHL to score multiple power play goals this season.
“You want to get off to a hot start and get a couple under your belt, especially with a new team. They weren’t the prettiest of goals, but you want to get pucks to the net and get to the dirty areas around the net,” said Vecchione.
Walker and Nastasiuk agreed. After scoring on a semi-break on the left wing for his first goal on Opening Night, Walker’s second goal came on a rebound, burying the loose puck off a Pouliot point shot while falling to the ice to tie Tucson 2-2. Both of Nastasiuk’s goal were products of getting to the front of the net, his first tally on the rebound of a Niko Mikkola blocked wrister and his second on a puck off his chest from teammate Tanner Kaspick.
“We’re trying to stress getting pucks to the net until we can start to figure out each other’s tendencies and learn our chemistry,” said Vecchione. “We’re getting pucks to the net and some fluky bounces to start the season, but they count.”
It wasn’t only the first-timers who found their stride to start the season. After setting Rampage rookie records last season, Mitch Reinke has assists in back-to-back games. Last year’s co-leading goal scorer Jordan Nolan picked up an assist, as did Austin Poganski and Klim Kostin. Kaspick and Mikkola each notched their first multipoint games in the AHL on Sunday.
A Rampage team that Head Coach Drew Bannister claimed got quicker and more skilled in the off-season appeared to be just that, pushing the puck in transition against Manitoba and dominating puck possession late against Tucson. San Antonio created their share of odd-man rushes, but still scored five of seven goals on rebounds and deflections from the slot.
Whether they were in control of the game or had to take control, the Rampage asserted themselves to start the season.
“We got it together and started playing our kind of hockey, getting pucks behind their defense and creating some offense,” said Vecchione. “It was pretty nice to see the character we have in this room and the resiliency that even down two and not playing well, we were still able to bounce back and win. Hopefully that goes a long way this year.”
74 games remain on the AHL schedule, and the Rampage still have a long road ahead of them. But through the season’s first weekend, Rampage players old and new looked right at home at the AT&T Center.