The Tucson Roadrunners’ season-opening win could not have gone more to script.
Forward Brayden Burke netted the season’s first goal barely three minutes into the opening period and Tucson broke in a roster arguably deeper than any yet seen in the club’s three-plus seasons competing in Southern Arizona.
“I don’t know if anybody is going to know where our points are coming from,” Roadrunners coach Jay Varady said following the win. “That’s just how our lineup is. (Friday was) a really good example of that.”
Tucson’s efforts, which resulted in a 2-0 win over the Texas Stars at the H-E-B Center outside Austin, were also helped by the services of Antti Raanta. Raanta, barely a year and some months ago considered a legitimate candidate for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s top goaltender, was with Tucson on the road Friday. He pitched a 19-save shutout as part of a conditioning loan from the NHL’s Coyotes.
Starting hot has been the norm for Tucson, which takes on the San Antonio Rampage on Sunday afternoon. On opening night a year ago, the Roadrunners battled back from 2-0 and 4-2 deficits to defeat the San Diego Gulls 6-4 at Tucson Arena. The Roadrunners would go on to lose just once in regulation over the first four weeks of the season, starting 6-1-0-1.
And prior to that, including the team’s inaugural season in the desert after moving west from Springfield, Massachusetts? Tucson began the 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns with matching 8-1-2-0 records, despite suffering opening-night losses in both seasons.
So what does it all mean — especially considering the Roadrunners have just one playoff berth to show for those strong early-season starts?
“We’ve got a real, real solid group that’s just starting to learn to play with each other,” Burke said. “The more time we have to jell and mesh, the better we’re going to be.
“And I do think we’re going to be right at the top of the standings when the time comes this year,” Burke added.
AHL coaching staffs don’t have much by way of video tape when scouting opponents this early in the season. Most teams’ “tape” is limited to just a couple preseason games and maybe only a single regular season matchup. The Roadrunners have turned to self-evaluation.
“This time of year, we’re almost purely focused on our team internally,” Varady said when asked about opposition research. “It’s about what we’re trying to accomplish and being the best version of ourselves.”
Come Sunday, however, the Roadrunners’ lineup will already look a tad different. Raanta was recalled to the Coyotes on Saturday, and Adin Hill — Tucson’s all-time leader in wins, shutouts, save percentage and minutes played — was assigned to the Roadrunners. Hill could get his first start as early as Sunday afternoon.
“Getting ‘Hiller’ back, I mean he’s one of the best goalies in the league,” Burke said. “Obviously having Raanta here was nice, but getting ‘Hiller’ back is not going to be a drop-off from what we just saw.”