Four teams, competing in two venues more than 1,000 air miles apart — and a pair of semi-interconnected events spread out by some 80 seconds — is what ultimately spelled the beginning of the end to the Tucson Roadrunners’ 2018-19 hockey season.
The Roadrunners entered their 68th and final regular-season game Saturday night needing one point in the standings to earn a second-consecutive Calder Cup playoff berth. That point could have come via a victory of any kind, or just as long as Tucson reached overtime (even in defeat).
While Tucson would stage yet another valiant late-game comeback, the Roadrunners just didn’t have enough in the tank in the end, falling 4-3 at Tucson Arena to the visiting San Diego Gulls.
Just past 8:30 p.m., the final ticks ran off the clock at Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colorado, to signal the Eagles’ 3-2 win over the San Jose Barracuda in their own finale. That win put Colorado — it would turn out permanently — up by a point on the Roadrunners in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division standings.
Not even a minute-and-a-half later in real time, San Diego broke a 1-1 tie to jump ahead of Tucson on a goal by Sam Carrick, and spread the lead to 4-1 into the third period. Tucson battled back, but San Diego holding meant the Roadrunners would finish the season that single point behind Colorado for the division’s fourth and final playoff berth.
“All of us definitely thought we’d be playing next weekend,” Roadrunners’ captain Dakota Mermis said. “To come up one goal short, it stings. It definitely stings.”
Added forward Lane Pederson, Tucson’s season leader in goals and points: “We had a lot of fun this year and would have really liked to keep playing. It just stings right now.”
Lane Pederson’s 23rd goal of the season to tie the game at one apiece in the second period was among the highlights for the Roadrunners. Pederson’s middle-frame marker gave him a share of the franchise’s all-time Tucson single-season record for goals alongside Mike Sislo, who also scored 23 a year ago.
Conor Garland added two more goals Saturday in the third period, giving him four in the final two games after he rejoined Tucson this week at the conclusion of the Arizona Coyotes’ NHL schedule.
Amid the incomplete comeback, Tucson couldn’t repeat the magic of the night before, or of what it did many times during the season’s final weeks.
A night earlier against San Diego, it was Garland scoring with three seconds left in overtime to guarantee two points. Just a few games earlier, it was Michael Bunting scoring with 10 seconds left in regulation to secure a Tucson Arena win over San Jose. And the week before that, Pederson’s hat trick — capped by an overtime game winner of his own — knocked off the Eagles to help put the Roadrunners in position to even have a playoff chance this weekend. Multiple times over the final weeks, the Roadrunners entered the third period trailing by two goals only to come back and either win outright or at least record a point the hard way in overtime.
During the last month or so, the Roadrunners drove downhill full speed, climbing back into contention from 11 points out of a playoff spot, only to go one point up heading into the final day of their regular season.
“I thought (Saturday’s game) was a microcosm of our team all season in terms of the pushback and the competitiveness right until the end,” Tucson head coach Jay Varady said. “I think we endured a lot of tough situations over the course of the year in terms of injuries and call-ups, and we were a resilient group in terms of how we battled in those situations.”
The Roadrunners’ comeback for the season was capped by earning points in 10 of the club’s final 14 games. That stretch came immediately following a brutal run that saw Tucson win only twice in 16 games, dating all the way back to the AHL All-Star break in late January.
Tucson’s season also directly correlated in many ways with that of its NHL sibling, the Arizona Coyotes. While the Coyotes fell just shy of their own Stanley Cup playoff berth a week ago, the Coyotes’ roster fluctuation directly impacted their Southern Arizona brethren. As Roadrunners players like Dakota Mermis, Hunter Miska, Garland, Hill, Bunting and Mario Kempe earned NHL call-ups for at least some of the season, the Roadrunners plugged-and-played while depending on constants like Pederson, Robbie Russo and rookie Brayden Burke, among a host of others, to get to the finish line.
As for Saturday, Varady said, “We continually pushed back and maybe we needed just a bounce there with the goalie pulled to really make something special happen, and it didn’t.”