Over the last six weeks, not many American Hockey League goaltenders have been better than Adin Hill.
Since Jan. 18 — his first game back with the Tucson Roadrunners after a nearly-two-month stint with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes — Hill has appeared in 14 games for the Southern Arizona club. He’s started 12 games while posting a 2.17 goals against average and .928 save percentage. Perhaps the only goalie in the league who’s been statistically better: Shane Starrett of the seemingly unbeatable Bakersfield Condors.
Yet while Starrett and the Condors took back-to-back games from the Roadrunners last weekend to run their franchise-record and AHL-season-high win streak to 17 straight games, the Roadrunners have moved far in the opposite direction.
“It’s a bummer because we feel like we’re letting him down a little bit,” Roadrunners’ captain Dakota Mermis said after a recent loss to Bakersfield in which Hill stopped 29 of 30 shots. “He’s eating losses like that when he’s really given us a lot of chances.”
Added Tucson head coach Jay Varady: “He’s doing his job, and the guys around him — everybody, coaching staff — we’ve got to do our jobs.”
Last weekend was no aberration, though. Since Hill’s return, the Roadrunners are 6-8-1-1 overall; that includes games Hill didn’t start. But when he does, Tucson is barely giving him two goals of offensive support per night. The Roadrunners have lost eight times when Hill starts (seven in regulation, and one in a shootout), despite the Hill allowing only 2.38 goals as the losing goaltender of record.
“The more you play, the more I guess you feel like you’re in a groove. You can get that rhythm to it,” Hill said. “At the same time lately, it’s kind of sucked because we’ve been losing. We’ve just got to find a way to get one more (goal).”
Hill was certain to point out that’s he’s not being critical of his teammates and their own plight this season; Tucson’s lineup — goalies included — has seen its fair share of alterations due to a rash of NHL injuries and call-ups, and even a few trades, since the season began some five months ago.
But if the Roadrunners want to secure a second consecutive Calder Cup playoff berth, they’ll have to figure something out on the offensive end, no matter who is in goal. That starts Saturday at 7:05 p.m., and Sunday at 3:05 p.m. on the road against the Colorado Eagles.
With 18 games to play, the Roadrunners (25-19-4-2) are deadlocked with the Eagles (26-22-3-1) with 56 points for the fourth and final playoff spot in the AHL’s Pacific Division. On the day Hill returned to the AHL in January, it was Tucson’s midway point in the season at 34 of 68 games played. Tucson was just two points out of first place in the Pacific Division; the Roadrunners are now 13 back. They had the third-best record among the AHL’s 31 teams; today, they’re 15th.
It could be argued that Hill played well enough with the Coyotes to continue earning NHL time. But Roadrunners general manager Steve Sullivan, who doubles as the Coyotes’ assistant general manager, said sending Hill back to Tucson for the second half of the season was an easy call.
“We see Adin as a potential No. 1 — a starter who could play 60-65 games in the NHL per season,” Sullivan said, crediting Coyotes goaltending coach Corey Schwab, and goaltending development coach Zac Bierck, who monitors minor leaguers working their way up the franchise ladder. “He’s got to play and … continue to work on his craft. So for us to have him up here as a backup goaltender to (current Coyotes’ No. 1 Darcy) Kuemper, just doesn’t make sense.”
But coming back to Tucson, and the organization wanting Hill to see regular game action, meant his likely wrestling full-time No. 1 duties from Hunter Miska, his roommate and close friend. The two virtually split starts for the better part of a year and a half, but since his return, Hill has been the clear go-to for Tucson.
“Hunter has been great. He’s a great guy, and is all about the team,” Hill said of Miska. “We both just want to win and it is a team effort here, so we still have a great relationship on and off the ice.”
Added Sullivan: “For us, the last year and a half, Hunter and Adin kind of split the net evenly. … But since Adin has come back — and it’s nothing against Hunter — we’ve decided … to give him a few more starts and find out exactly what we have with Adin.”