In a perfect world for Nick Merkley, it’s likely his return to the Tucson Roadrunners lineup this week would have ended just a tad differently.
Maybe the second-year right-winger — back on the ice after nearly nine months on the shelf following knee surgery — would have scored a goal (or at least set up one of his teammates) to lead to a Tucson win.
But that wasn’t in the cards, as the Roadrunners (15-6-2-1) were shut out at home Wednesday 2-0 by the Colorado Eagles. It was the first time Tucson had been blanked this season.
A lack of offensive pressure — Tucson managed only 11 shots through the first two periods — and spending too much time in the penalty box, if you ask head coach Jay Varady, made it the sort of outing the Roadrunners can’t afford to have develop into a trend.
Not at this point in the season, at least, with the Roadrunners still virtually tied for first in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division; and not with a pair of games against one of the AHL’s most high-powered offenses on deck.
But Wednesday notwithstanding, Merkley’s return carries plenty of weight as the Roadrunners travel just about the farthest they will all season to Rosemont, Illinois, to face the Chicago Wolves on Saturday at 6:05 p.m., and Sunday at 2:05 p.m. The Wolves (13-9-2-1) are third among the AHL’s 31 teams in goals per game (3.85).
“I feel really good,” Merkley said after his return, adding that he has been skating for two to three months in an effort to get game-ready. “It’s nice just to get back in the atmosphere again. … It will be good for me to just stay competitive and stay in the game.”
Merkley’s return and his output (18 goals, 39 points in 38 games in 2017-18) couldn’t come at a better time for Tucson. While Tucson has been in the top third in the league in scoring at 3.5 goals per game this season, the Roadrunners’ offensive manpower has thinned out lately.
The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes have come calling to the Roadrunners to fill holes. Up front, Mario Kempe (five goals) headed out of Tucson late last month. Then Conor Garland (eight goals, 19 points) and Michael Bunting (eight goals, 18 points) — the Roadrunners’ top two in points — were called up over the last 10 days for their NHL debuts. The same threesome that made up Tucson’s top line as recently as Nov. 16 was on the ice together again as the Coyotes’ fourth line during Bunting’s NHL debut at Boston last week.
Those moves came on the heels of some defensive pick-and-pull. Captain Dakota Mermis, defenseman Robbie Russo and goaltenders Hunter Miska and Adin Hill each have spent time in Glendale. Hill, the NHL’s second star during his first week on the job, will likely be there a while now that Coyotes’ No. 1 goaltender Antti Raanta is out indefinitely.
For the Roadrunners, who has been available has not made much of a difference in the outcome.
Before being shut out, Tucson had gone eight straight games without a loss in regulation, earning 14 of a possible 16 points.
Even with some of their offensive firepower elsewhere, the Roadrunners still sit in the top third of AHL teams in goals scored per game. That’s partly thanks to a balance that includes 12 skaters with five or more goals, and defensemen such as Russo (14 assists) and Kyle Capobianco, who is tied for second on the team with 19 points (two goals, 17 assists).
“It speaks so much to our depth. A lot of guys are being asked to play different roles. … Guys are just stepping up in key moments,” forward Lane Pedersen noted, referring to Varady getting creative and putting Trevor Murphy and Kevin Ekman-Larsson — both full-time defensemen until lately — up at forward.
As for Merkley, Varady is ready to cut him loose again this weekend in Chicago.
“He looked like he was right in the swing of things,” he said after Merkley’s return. “He’s a talented player. … It gives (us) another weapon, another look, another right shot.”