It was Michael Bunting, in his first game back after his National Hockey League call-up, who got under the visiting Chicago Wolves’ skin.
And it was Adam Helewka, now the Tucson Roadrunners’ leading goal scorer, who buried a pair of third-period goals to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win Saturday night at Tucson Arena.
But, as Helewka said it, it was a “full team effort” that “showed a lot of character” as the Roadrunners staved off a season sweep at the hands of the Wolves, while reaching the midway point of the 2018-19 regular season in the winner’s circle.
“We were a little bit (upset) about (Friday night),” Helewka said about the Roadrunners’ 6-3 loss to the same Wolves squad, giving Chicago — at the time — a 3-0 season series lead.
“I think it might have taken us a period and a bit to get our jump, but we found it and were able to come out on top.”
Bunting had an assist in his return to the lineup, but arguably his greatest contribution was his ability to be a thorn in the side of virtually any Chicago player who came his way.
Bunting drew multiple late third-period penalties, not only giving Tucson the ensuing power-play advantages that helped chew away at the deficit, but also firing up a team in need of a spark after an otherwise difficult weekend.
“He got under guys’ skin,” said Helewka, whose 11 goals now lead all Roadrunner scorers. “He got their top guys off their game and got us power-plays at the same time. Anytime one player can do that by himself, it’s unbelievable.”
Bunting returned to Tucson on Saturday after spending much of the past five weeks with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
“I like to play on the edge,” he said. “Obviously I was getting under their skin. The more they’re worried about me, the more they’re off their game, and I like that.”
A night after being pulled following three early first-period goals, Calvin Pickard made up for it in goal Saturday for Tucson. He stopped 28 of 30 shots to keep Tucson close and ultimately play with the lead in what was his 200th career AHL start. On the other side of the coin, Chicago’s Zachary Fucale was nearly as good, stopping 27 of 30 shots he faced in his AHL debut after being called up from Fort Wayne of the ECHL earlier in the week.
Pickard, who made four consecutive starts for the Roadrunners with three wins but otherwise somewhat mixed results, sees his 14-day conditioning stint in Tucson effectively end with the win. What the NHL’s Coyotes do next — call him back up to Glendale, place Pickard on waivers, or something else — will happen early this coming week.
Saturday’s win — which included Helewka’s pair of goals, plus Dominic Alberga’s first career AHL goal — came in the Roadrunners 34th game of the 2018-19 season — the campaign’s exact midway point. A year ago, en route to the AHL’s Pacific Division title and the best regular season record in the Western Conference, Tucson was 20-11-2-1 at midseason, good for 43 points. This year: a near carbon-copy at 20-10-3-1, good for 44 points.
After defeating the Wolves (22-13-3-1), the Roadrunners trail San Jose by two points in the Pacific Division race entering the new week, and are the AHL’s third-best team in terms of percentage of possible points earned.
“You know what, I think we’ve been able to survive,” Tucson head coach Jay Varady said of how he views the season’s first half. “We’ve had lots of things happen, injuries, call-ups, things of that nature … we just keep clawing our way through whatever is coming at us, and have a really good attitude about it.”