It’s back in the win column for the Tucson Roadrunners — and backs with no more monkeys hanging around for some of the Roadrunners’ key offensive contributors.
The Roadrunners (8-3-0-0) are now in a virtual tie for first place in the American Hockey League’s Pacific division with 16 points after sweeping their Northern California road swing with a 5-3 victory Sunday over the San Jose Barracuda, coming the day after a 4-3 overtime win Saturday over the Stockton Heat.
The weekend wins, both over divisional opponents, came in no small part thanks to the output of once-and-now-again goal-scoring forwards Michael Bunting, Jeremy Gregoire and Nick Merkley.
“I hope to never see that guy again,” Bunting said postgame Sunday of the proverbial monkey that’s been on his own back — the one he not-so-affectionately dubbed “King Kong.”
“It’s probably never happened to me like this in my career,” Bunting added. “Obviously getting the four points (via two wins) matters the most … but it feels great, and I am sure the rest of those guys feel that way, too.”
The trio is part of a foursome of Roadrunners who, despite combining for 55 goals last season, had yet to score a single goal in 2019-20 before this weekend. But the group effort among those three resulted in a combined five goals and three assists in the wins over the Heat (10-7-1-1) and Barracuda (4-4-0-1). The fourth member of that group — Hudson Fasching — is still without a goal, but did pick up first point on the season, an assist on a Brayden Burke third-period goal that ultimately ended up as Sunday’s game winner.
“I think if you looked at our statistics, leading into the weekend we were kind of top heavy,” Tucson coach Jay Varady said, referencing the output of team leaders like Michael Chaput and Lane Pederson, who’s added a third-period goal Sunday to his already gaudy early-season total.
Pederson, who also added two assists Saturday, is now third in the AHL in both goals (9) and points (14) through 10 games.
In addition, Varady cited Brayden Burke’s overtime winner Saturday and Jon Martin’s contribution via his own third-period goal Sunday as necessities for his club to get back to its winning ways after most recently losing back-to-back mid-week games to the Chicago Wolves at home.
Varady also noted that he’s proud of the way the Roadrunners “hung in there” after being outshot 20-10 in Saturday’s third period and 27-9 through the first two periods Sunday.
“I think we saw this weekend that scoring as a pack we’re a much better hockey team and we’re able to fight through tougher situations,” Varady said.
Defenseman Jordan Gross also had a pair of assists Saturday and another Sunday night for Tucson, while forward Andy Miele had two assists Saturday. Rookie forward Nate Schnarr and defensemen Kyle Capobianco and Robbie Russo also had an assist each over the weekend.
In some respects, the Roadrunners may have been forced to divvy up scoring a bit. Chaput, Tucson’s captain and second-leading goal scorer with five, was held out of Saturday’s game before it was made public Sunday that he’d been recalled by the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, the Roadrunners’ parent club.
Back for the Roadrunners this weekend, however: goaltender Adin Hill, who had been away from the team for the final three games of the most recent six-game homestand tending to family matters. Hill was back in uniform Saturday night, but in the backup position as rookie Ivan Prosvetov stopped 37 of 40 shots to move to 3-1 in his professional career, with a 1.98 goals against average and .944 save percentage in four outings.
But Hill returned to starter status Sunday night, stopping 34 of 37 shots in his first start in nine days.
The two Northern California matchups mark the first of seven in a row over an 18-day stretch against either the Heat or Barracuda. Up next: Friday and Saturday, both at 7:05 p.m., against Stockton at Tucson Arena.
“I think these are two good hockey teams," Varady said. "That’s what you take away (from this weekend). We know we have to be prepared, just like with every team in the league. But these are two division opponents who are talented and we saw that first-hand these last two nights.”