(Click here to read Part I
of the 2013-14 Rampage season recap, taking a look at the transition in head coaches through a rocky December to turning the corner in January.)
San Antonio headed into the Rodeo Road Trip following a 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Marlies on Pink in the Rink Night, which drew 15,251 fans in the third-largest crowd in franchise history.
The road trip would end up being the highlight of the season, as the Rampage strung together a 7-2-0-1 record in February. With a .750 win percentage on the trip and 15 of a possible 20 points earned, it was the most successful Rodeo Road Trip in the history of the organization.
The Rampage averaged 2.8 goals per game in the 10 games played on the trip, and while those weren’t the best offensive numbers the team put up during the season, the Silver and Black were buoyed by a dynamite penalty kill that saw an 87.9 percent success rate on the road trip, killing 29-of-33 power play opportunities.
Perhaps more important to the team’s success during that stretch was consistency in their lineup and time to adapt to the philosophies and concepts Rowe and the coaching staff had worked to instill.
“I think that whole rodeo trip was a byproduct of what we were talking about and working toward up to that point,” Rowe said. “They got on the road, and they had a blast off the ice, and everything really clicked. I probably stayed off of them the whole month because we were playing so well, so they were playing more relaxed and they were all playing with a lot of confidence.”
Being on the road as a team for an extended period of time with minimal roster movement also had a positive impact on team chemistry. Rowe noted he would see the team at restaurants and that there would be around 15 guys all having a meal together, which might seem relatively unsurprising on the surface but actually doesn’t happen on many teams.
The Rampage earned a point in every game from January 24 through February 21, the second longest point streak of the season league-wide, and the Silver and Black were just two points out of the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot heading into a March 1 game against the division-leading Texas Stars.
“I thought we had finally turned a corner and we were pretty excited to get back home and then all of a sudden the bottom fell out,” Rowe said. “I think that was a learning stage for all of us, myself included – knowing that just because you have one good month doesn’t mean it’s going to be guaranteed the next month.”
On March 2nd, defenseman Eric Selleck was traded for forward Mark Mancari, and on the March 5th NHL trade deadline, the Panthers dealt goalie Jacob Markstrom to the Vancouver Canucks for Roberto Luongo, delivering a significant blow to the Rampage.
“Markstrom just gave that locker room so much confidence because he was playing so well,” Rowe said. “And then the trade happened – and you have to make that trade – you can’t pass up on a guy like Luongo. I think that had the biggest impact. When we needed to have Houser go in, he could give us the quality games because we weren’t counting on him every night. He’s a good goalie, but he wasn’t ready to make those types of saves on a nightly basis. He wasn’t ready to be a No. 1 guy, so it was a learning curve for everyone.”
The musical chairs of roster moves continued. The Panthers, well out of a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, wanted a good look at their prospects in the Alamo City. Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak were all recalled between March 5th and 13th, each spending the rest of the NHL regular season in Florida. Joey Crabb, Mike Mottau, Garrett Wilson, Ryan Whitney and Jonathan Racine all had short stints, and with each move, new faces joined the Rampage from Cincinnati. Trevor Lewis, Josh McFadden, Anthony Luciani, Jonathan Hazen and Tony Turgeon, who was on San Antonio’s opening day roster, all played with San Antonio through various parts of the season’s final stretch.
“It’s difficult when you come home and you’re two points out of the playoffs and then you start to lose some of your key players who were big parts of our team that helped us get to that point,” said Rampage captain Greg Rallo. “They’re tough to replace that late in the season and it kind of messes up the flow you have going, but that’s the nature of the minor leagues.”
San Antonio went a combined 6-14-0-1 in March and April, finishing with 69 points and in 14th place in the Western Conference. Yet, the work ethic and the hustle remained high to the final whistle, which provides for a solid foundation heading into next season.
“That’s what was amazing – as hard as we pushed them, they still had a lot of fun, they were a close knit group, there was no dissention,” said Rowe. “Coming in as a new guy, knowing the team and knowing the type of players that are here from coaching against them before, I just knew they needed to be pushed. Now that we have that foundation in place, it’s never easy, but at least they know what to expect, and they’ll be able to push the pace from Day 1 and push each other.”
(Stay tuned for the third and final part of the Rampage season in review as we look ahead to the 2014-15 season, the talent returning to San Antonio and Rowe’s thoughts on turning this group into a playoff contender.)