The Rampage have won three straight, beating two excellent hockey teams above them in the standings. With victories over the Texas Stars and a couple of wins in Tucson over the weekend, the Rampage are at .500 and have escaped the Pacific Division basement.
Where to point the happy finger?
You can look at the exceptional penalty-killing unit, which ranks third in the AHL, including a 0-15 blanket thrown over the Roadrunners who is the league’s third best power-play unit, scoring every fourth time they have the extra man.
But that’s old news. When the team was struggling, the PK was still top-10.
In addition, a happy finger must be pointed in the direction of goaltender Spencer Martin. It appears Martin picked up a few moves during his latest recall to Colorado, even although he has yet to appear in a game. In the three wins, Martin surrendered only five goals while facing 72 shots to move up to 13th in the circuit with a 2.35 goals against average. But his recent spurt puts him at 14 wins, tied for the most among league goaltenders, while his minutes played and saves put him in fourth among AHL netminders.
Then again, nothing new there, as Martin has kept the team above water most of the season.
We must also acknowledge team captain Joe Whitney, who has combined with former Albany Devils linemate Mike Sislo and Jim O’Brien to become the sizzling scoring trio envisioned by Avalanche brass when they picked up the three veterans this off season.
Whitney, out of Lawrence Academy and Boston College, has seven points in his last eight games, while O’Brien has found his range with four goals in his six games since returning from an injury plus two assists. Sislo has contributed three goals and four assists in his last seven contests, but the way these three experienced marksmen have played together gives Rampage fans confidence heading into the playoff stretch run.
“Our focus has been getting results,” said Whitney, the all-time scorer in Albany Devils history. “We really hadn’t been producing at the rate that we would like. I think the little Christmas break may have helped to reset the mind and we’re all looking forward to the second half and making a good push.”
Many of his Albany helpers landed on Sislo’s stick before tickling the twine. Sislo is that franchise all-time top goal scorer with 92, while Whitney’s 208 points in 277 games tops the scoring leaderboard, but trailed Sislo by only six goals. Let’s just say both skaters’ faces adorn AHL goaltender dart boards.
“I’m sure a lot of my assists are the result of (Sislo) putting them into the back of the net. We actually lived together our first year pro. I know Sis pretty well and it’s good to playing with him again.”
Whitney grew up in Reading, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston and naturally favored the hometown Bruins. “I grew up watching the Bruins and there’s a lot of college hockey there. High school or prep hockey is really big there too. I got into it at an early age. My dad got me a pair of skates and I fell in love with the sport.”
Whitney and his brothers grew up on a cul-de-sac and shot pucks on a net, protected from traffic dangers, but there were consequences for missing the net. “There was no net (or barrier) behind the goal so if you missed there were pucks all over the neighborhood,” he recalled with a grin. “The neighbors would be mowing the lawn and pucks would be flying out so we’d have to go chase them down. We did that on a daily basis.”
Even at his small stature, Whitney’s prep career nabbed him a scholarship at BC, where he “enjoyed the best four years of [his] life playing hockey.”
At 5-6, Whitney can’t afford to be stationary on the ice with some players looming a foot above him, so he finds he must out-work the bigger boys and in many cases, frustrate those who have the height advantage.
“It’s hard for those bigger guys to bend their knees and get down to my level. It’s tough for them to stop and turn so I try and use that to my advantage and force them to being in spots where they’re not comfortable being in.” In many instances, Whitney draws more penalties than he picks up, based on the frustration level he spreads on the ice.
The Devils gave Whitney a shot after his two-time Frozen Four championships with the Eagles in 2011, and Whitney responded with four strong seasons of increased production each year (44, 51, 53 and 60 points). “It’s a first class organization over there. They gave me a chance first and I’m very thankful for that, just trying to work hard for those years I was there.”
The Devils also gave Whitney his only opportunity to play in the NHL, where he scored a New Year’s Day goal against Jimmy Howard and the Detroit Red Wings two years ago. “I got a good shot on net and thankfully it went in. I’m very fortunate for that opportunity.”
The 25-year old team captain was off to a point-per-game pace last season in Bridgeport with the Islanders’ organization when he suffered a broken leg – both fibula and tibia – and his season came to an end after 36 games and 33 points.
Now in San Antonio, Whitney has had to adjust to the weather, air travel and his first taste of Western Conference play. “It’s been different for sure, especially flying everywhere on the road. It has things that I like and things that I just ‘kinda’ like but overall it’s been pretty good and looking forward to the second half.”
The six-game roadie is off and running with two big wins over Tucson last weekend, and the Rampage captain feels this is a time for team bonding and getting better. “It will be good to get on the road. It’s a big road trip for us at a key point in the season especially where we are in the standings right now. On the road, get everybody together. No distractions with our main focus every night is to get wins and start chipping away at the standings.”
Whitney is doing his part, especially Saturday night with a goal and assist. His lone two-goal game came in San Jose in October on his season high seven shots. The happy finger has pointed to many aspects of Rampage hockey this past week. Whitney and his San Antonio teammates are California dreaming to get better for their playoff run.
In Case You Missed It
The Rampage three-game winning streak is tied for a season-high…the Rampage are one of four AHL teams with double-digit road wins, joining Lehigh Valley, Providence and Milwaukee in that category…Troy Bourke enjoyed his first professional multi-goal game Saturday when he collected a couple vs Tucson…speaking of hot lines, the J.T. Compher-Rocco Grimaldi-A.J. Greer line has a 4-2 record since being reunited on Dec. 17, scoring 16 points...Greer and Grimaldi lead the team in scoring with 23 points each... the AHL tabbed four coaches for the All-Star game round-robin format coming up on Jan. 29/30 in Allentown, home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Clark Donatelli, Syracuse Crunch mentor Benoit Groulx, Todd Nelson of the Grand Rapids Griffins and Mike Stothers of Ontario will pilot each of the four teams representing their divisions in playing 10 minute games of 3-on-3 hockey. There is also a skills competition involving goaltending, shooting and skating in seven areas. Former Rampage goaltender Jacob Markstrom was the game’s co-MVP two years ago with Hamilton’s Charles Hudson.
Going back to Jan 4, 2013, Markstrom blocked all 26 Peoria Rivermen shots enroute to a 3-0 win over the former St. Louis Blues affiliate. Drew Shore, Greg Rallo and Jon Rheault scored the Rampage goals in the victory. Markstrom is making waves in Vancouver this season, getting consistent minutes in net, while Shore has taken his game to the Swiss Elite league, where he has 18-10-28 in 34 games this season. The Colorado native has 80 NHL games under his belt with nine goals with Florida and Calgary. Rallo, the former captain and tormentor of the Rampage, is in Germany playing for Iserlohn, where he has seven goals and seven assists this season. Rallo, as a four-year member of the Texas Stars, scored many goals against the Rampage before suiting up for San Antonio for three seasons, only to return to Texas for two more years. Rheault played one year in San Antonio, but led the team in scoring with 48 points before moving to Mannheim for three years in the German League and this year with Visp EHC of the Swiss-B league, where he has 36 points in 28 games. Rheault scored the final goal of the German Championship game with Mannheim two years ago.
Stay up late with Dan Weiss and Rampage hockey in San Diego this weekend – Friday and Saturday nights with faceoff at 9 pm.