Lakehead beats Toronto in opening week grudge match;
Early season surprises and shockers around the league
January 28th, 2013
The IceHoles and Red Devils talked trash, laid the smack down, and played one wildly entertaining matchup to open the 2013 regular season.
After nine months, one lockout, and only days of training camp, fans packed Toronto’s home ice arena to celebrate the Red Devils’ return. But they’ll have to wait longer to enjoy a win.
The Lakehead Iceholes shut out the noise and the hype and shut down the Red Devils, enjoying a fast start to an abbreviated season.
Steven Stamkos registered 10 of the 76 points scored on offense for the IceHoles to lead his team past the Red Devils 6-3 in Week 1.
”Well, it’s been a long time since we played, but I think the energy is there,” Stamkos said. ”There are a lot of guys in here who are comfortable with each other and I think that will help in the early going.”
Red Devils fans were in playoff form, starting with the booming, derogatory chants at IceHoles coach Jason Briggs from the moment he stepped behind the bench.
”It’s a tough place to play, for sure,” Briggs said. ”We saw exactly what we expected out there, tough crowd, tough team, but it’s a good experience for us, and we’ll take the win.”
The AFHL’s biggest rivalry kicked off the 48-game season with fans filling the parking lots to tailgate hours before faceoff and almost everyone was in some sort of team gear – and that was before they all received a free T-shirt as they entered the arena.
More than 2,000 fans packed the Red Devils’ practice facility for the first day of camp and another 15,000 showed up for a free, open practice last Thursday. The Red Devils sold more than 17,000 season ticket packages this season and every seat was full for pregame introductions.
The Red Devils aired a video tribute to their fans. Players, local dignitaries, and even a Ben Franklin impersonator all welcomed back fans and thanked them for sticking with the Red Devils over the three-month lockout.
Red Devils GM Jordan Carbone told the fans on video, ”We’re going to win a Cup for you this year.”
One by one, the Red Devils skated out before a sold-out crowd that was delirious with nine months of pent up exuberance. Then the lights came on, the arena was electric and… Bam. Down 4-0 just in a flash.
”Considering some guys haven’t played since April, I think we got off to a pretty good start,” said Briggs.
Shortly after the IceHoles scored their fifth goal in the early going, the matchup became all about the brawls more suitable for a UFC card. Three players were tossed by the end of the first night in the matchup. There was a rare fight between superstars in the second night when Taylor Hall squared off against Steven Stamkos, although no one got the better end of that scrap.
”It was passionate hockey,” said Carbone. ”A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves going at it. Would I rather have Taylor [Hall] keep his gloves on? Sure. But when he’s fighting Steven Stamkos, that’s passionate hockey. That’s the rivalry.”
Shortly after Briggs called Carbone a “pansy” from behind the IceHoles bench, Taylor Hall ignited the scrum when he twice jabbed goalie Antti Niemi’s glove against the ice. Stamkos shoved Hall from behind. Hall retaliated by shoving Stamkos’ head against the glass.
While the 20,092 fans roared, Kris Letang and Michael Del Zotto exchanged shots, and James Neal and Bobby Ryan each were penalized for roughing.
Hall insisted the Red Devils weren’t getting rattled.
”There’s more than one team getting in those things,” he said. ”You can make a story all you want about us getting frustrated. They’re doing the same things we are. It’s intense.”
The on-ice violence was just warming up.
In Wednesday’s game, IceHoles forward Michael Ryder rammed Ilya Kovalchuk into the boards, turned around and was crosschecked in the upper body by Red Devils forward Jason Chimera. Chimera jumped a defenseless Ryder and connected with a vicious right to earn the match penalty – a penalty imposed on a player who deliberately attempts to injure or who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner.
Games on Thursday and Friday were slightly less physical and more high scoring although it was becoming more apparent that Lakehead would skate away with the victory. Towards the end of Friday’s game, Hall yanked the back of Jarome Iginla’s jersey and the fireworks went off again. Hall, Iginla, Semin and Elias were socked with roughing penalties.
In the final game of the matchup on Sunday, Lakehead was guaranteed the victory and all they needed to do was kill the clock. The fights continued and so did the hard hits. Neal flattened Henrik Sedin in the waning minutes and sent the Red Devils star center to the locker room. Players from both teams – including Ryder and Hall – had to be separated during a melee along the boards. Neal appeared to target Hall’s head at the end of the game, though the Red Devils star ducked and landed softly on the ice.
“We saw Neal going after Henrik’s head and Taylor’s head,” Red Devils forward Peter Mueller said. “Obviously, he had a plan in mind.”
The slugfest on the ice overshadowed the points on the scoreboard. In the end, the IceHoles outscored the Red Devils to win the matchup by the final score of 6-3.
”We proved we are the better team,” Briggs told the media on Monday morning. “I’m looking forward to beating them again in Week 18.”
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There was no shortage of surprises in the AFHL’s opening week of regular season action. Fans all around the globe were treated to upsets and coming out parties for several teams and rookies. Shortened training camps and a compressed schedule have led to many high-scoring matchups and a sense of urgency for the GMs of teams that have gotten off to a slow start. Here are some of the biggest surprises at the end of Week 1.
Buffalo Phantoms forward Patrick Mearleau being amongst the league’s top scorers is hardly a surprise. After all, he has scored 30 or more goals in 6 of his last 7 seasons. However, the pace he is scoring at this season is unheard of. Although he will likely come back down to earth, Marleau has already helped push the Phantoms near the top of the American Conference with his early start. If he simply continues at around a point per game pace the rest of the way, he will finish with over 50 points in 48 games.
After missing most of the last two seasons to knee injuries, the Victoria Vipers were not sure of whether or not Markov would be able to regain his old form. Now only three games into the season, and Markov is already looking like his old self. Markov leads all AFHL defensemen with four goals and one assist in only four games played. While he may not be getting any younger, there is definitely no doubting his importance to the Vipers.
Twin City Vikings rookie sensation Vladimir Tarasenko has started his AFHL career in fifth gear. The former first round pick came out blazing in his first game of the season with two highlight reel goals in the first night of action versus the Oshawa City Leafs. He currently leads all rookies with 4 goals through 4 games and is already a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy.
Steve Sullivan’s start to the season is definitely a big surprise. The 38 year old joined the Montreal Xtreme in the off season after putting up 48 points in 79 games last season. So far the 5’8 forward has been a perfect veteran leader for the Xtreme. Sullivan has 5 points in his last two games including a hat trick. If he can continue scoring for the Xtreme he will surely boost the chances of the Xtreme making the AFHL playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Cory Conacher has had an amazing start to his rookie season with 7 points in 4 games and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. The Pittsburgh Heroes forward is logging top flight minutes playing along side Artem Anisimov and Jakob Silfverberg at both even strength and on the power play. He’s a good fit on the team’s top line, and as long as he continues to produce he should remain there all season long.
2007 third overall pick Kyle Turris has taken quite a while to develop at the pro level. However, after getting traded to Montreal from Washington, the 6’1 forward seems to have found a home centering the Xtreme’s second line. After putting up 29 points in only 49 games last season, Turris has started off the year on a hot streak. He’s tied with Steve Sullivan for the team lead with five points in his first four games.
Vikings fans have been wondering if Nazem Kadri will ever produce at the pro level. Well, that day may have finally come. While it’s still early to say for certain that Kadri will remain an everyday AFHLer, he certainly has helped his cause with an ultra hot start. The 22 year old has five points in his first four games this season, and has displayed the offensive skills that had him drafted in the first round of the 2009 Entry Draft.
Swiss defensemen Raphael Diaz has enjoyed a fine start to the 2013 season. With the Buffalo Phantoms star defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky sitting out due to illness in his immediate family, Diaz has been given an opportunity to step in to the Phantoms top powerplay unit alongside Sergei Gonchar. The 27 year old has not disappointed racking up a team high five assists in the first three games.
Seeing Patrick Kane on this list may come as a big surprise to everyone, however it’s important to keep in mind that the young star only finished with 66 points in 82 games last season. While that may sound like a good season for most players, it was considered a down year after Kane had 4 straight 70+ point seasons (including 88 in 2009-10). Kane has started off the season on an absolute tear, leading his North Bay Warriors to a 9-2-1 start. He is looking every bit like the Kane we remember with nine points through the first five games. If he keeps this pace up he will surely be amongst the league’s top scorers at the end of the season.
Over the past few seasons, Michael Grabner has become a frustrating player for both the Islanders and the Ottawa Knights. After getting traded by the Red Devils to the Knights in the 2011 offseason, the speedy winger had a breakout season scoring 34 goals and finishing with 52 points. He followed that up with a big step back in 2011-2012 after only accumulating 32 points in 78 games played. Now through the first week of the season Grabner seems to have regained his scoring touch with five points in the first four games. He’s the second best scorer for the Knights and although it’s very early, he’s on pace to have a great season.
San Diego Gulls defenseman Mike Kostka is currently the leader in ice time among all first year players. Kostka does not qualify as a rookie because he’s 27 years old, but that makes his story even more remarkable. After four seasons at the University of Massachusetts and four in the American Hockey League, Kostka not only made the opening-night roster for the San Diego Gulls, he’s now playing alongside Justin Schultz on the top pairing. He hasn’t disappointed either, collecting three assists and logging more than 24 minutes per contest in the team’s first matchup of the AFHL season.
Everyone assumed injuries were going to be a major theme in a shortened season. But whether it’s the compressed schedule (it actually just seems busier than a normal 82-game slate) or the lack of a training camp or the disparity between those who played during the lockout and those who didn’t, the injury bug has bitten and bitten hard. The Deer Park Chiefs are without goaltender Mike Smith and forward Scott Hartnell, and their depth down on the farm has been ravaged by injury. The Washington Wolfpack and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Hamilton Firestorm have been nicked up with injuries, and their organizational depth is now being tested. Steve Downie is gone for the season for Oshawa City. Red Devils star forward Joffrey Lupul suffered a broken forearm and will be gone for a couple of months. Still, don’t expect the bug to be stopping its bite anytime soon. With that in mind, look for the teams with the greatest organizational depth to rise above these injuries and stay in the hunt for playoff berths and/or top seeds.
If Week 1 was a preview of what’s to come this year, then this shortened season is going to be a great fight-to-the-finish year around the league. Enjoy it everybody. Hockey is actually back.