After the Tucson Roadrunners were shut out Wednesday night for the first time this season — they fell to the visiting Chicago Wolves on back-to-back nights to conclude this particular six-game, early-season homestand — the prep work for their Northern California roadtrip began.
But, as longtime Tucson offensive force Michael Bunting would put it during the postgame media availability after that 3-0 loss, this trip may just include a bit more checked baggage than usual.
“It feels like I’ve got King Kong on my back,” Bunting said, candid as ever in his evaluation of his own performance and that of his team.
King Kong, in this case, is a monkey — and a large one — that Bunting admits he’s toting around at the moment.
Bunting, the Roadrunners’ career leader in goals scored and points, has yet to score this season. It’s been 14 games, dating back to last year, since he’s had a goal – the longest such streak he’s endured in his five seasons playing in the American Hockey League.
It’s not just Bunting who’s yet to light the red lamp for the Roadrunners this season. Teammates Hudson Fasching (16 in 2018-19) and Nick Merkley (10 in 2018-19) are among those yet to find paydirt in 2019-20. Jeremy Gregoire, a late-season pickup a year ago who scored 10 times splitting last season between the Milwaukee Admirals and Tucson, also hasn’t scored yet.
That’s 55 combined goals from that foursome last season, yet none so far through the first month of play. So what gives?
“I can’t worry about it too much,” Bunting said. “You know, I’m playing good hockey and I have my chances. That’s where I’d be more worried – if I didn’t have those chances.”
He’s not wrong. Bunting leads the Roadrunners with 36 shots on goal. The next closest are defensemen Jordan Gross and Robbie Russo with 27 and 25, respectively.
In comparison among forwards, Lane Pederson, last year’s team-leader with 23 goals, has scored a team-high eight times on 19 shots this year. Those eight goals pit him third overall across the 31-team AHL as Tucson heads into Saturday’s 6 p.m. road matchup against the Stockton Heat (6-1-0-1). They’ll wrap the weekend series with a Sunday afternoon game at the San Jose Barracuda (4-3-0-0).
While the Roadrunners’ offensive output has slowed of late — Tucson has just three goals in its last three games, and exactly half (13 of 26) of the team’s goals so far this season have come from either Pederson or captain Michael Chaput — coach Jay Varady has been willing to be patient with how the roster’s output evolves.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of things from other guys on our team in terms of contributing to our game,” Varady said, referencing players not named Pederson or Chaput still having an impact. “We win as a team, and we have certain guys scoring goals right now.”
Bunting has found other ways to contribute. He’s tied for a team-high six assists playing alongside Pederson and Chaput.
“Those guys,” Varady added, referring to Bunting, Fasching, Merkley and others, “will contribute as we continue here, and we’re going to need those guys as we progress through the season.”
Even while acknowledging that piggy-back-ride clamoring gorilla, Bunting said he’s not worried, and doesn’t over-press.
“You’ve got to go day-by-day and then hopefully pop that first goal in,” he said. “One of those is going to go in and then the floodgates will open.”
But it’s not just his own output that likely needs to change if the Roadrunners, who prior to the recent two-game skid won five in a row in convincing fashion, want to get back to their earlier winning ways.
“Refresh,” Bunting said when asked what the team can do to change it up after that pair of low-scoring defeats. “When we’re at the rink, just try to have fun. If we come in here, and are kind of sad about the last two games, that’s just going to move on into the weekend.
“We’ve just got to put this behind us and, you know, come to the rink tomorrow, be ready to practice and have fun together,” he added. “That’s what good teams do and that’s how you win in this league — leave the bad things behind you and move forward.”