Although the American Hockey League has 30 clubs stretching from San Diego, California to Laval, Quebec it is not a national league. Most AHL teams play the vast majority of their schedule against other teams in their division because of the need to minimize travel expenses in the minors. The Roadrunners unsurprisingly are no different, playing 54 of their 68 games against Pacific Division rivals.
This makes any matchup against a Central Division team, like Chicago interesting because of the lack of familiarity on both sides. Last night in the third of four games between the Tucson Roadrunners and the Chicago Wolves this season, Tucson won 2-1 in overtime. Heading into the game, the Roadrunners were 1-0-1 against the Wolves, winning one game when they visited Chicago and losing the other one in overtime.
Credit Chicago’s coaching staff for doing their homework and watching plenty of game film before playing the Roadrunners last night. They knew that the Roadrunners are a quick, young, skilled team that relies on their speed and skill to win in high-scoring games and they responded perfectly with an extremely defensive style of play.
Chicago employed a conservative 2-1-2 forecheck against the Roadrunners all night long. This strategy works by sending only two forwards deep into the offensive zone while one forward hangs back high in the offensive zone near the defenseman on the blue line. The goal of the 2-1-2 forecheck is to prevent the defending team from executing short breakout passes along the boards and using their speed to make plays up the ice, and its conservative nature allows at least three players to drop back and defend in the neutral zone if needed.
The Roadrunners have been very successful all season long in using their speed and skill to break out of the defensive zone and make good plays up the ice, but Chicago’s playing style neutralized this to a great effect. When Tucson was able to gain the offensive zone, the Wolves’ wingers consistently put pressure on the Roadrunners’ defencemen, stifling their ability to make plays and generate offense from the blue line. Chicago also did an excellent job blocking shots and creating traffic in passing lanes, frustrating Tucson’s forwards.
The Wolves playing style made Friday night the type of game only a goalie could love, as the first goal of the night came with less than fourteen minutes remaining in the third period. Jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the third period, Chicago dropped back even more and attempted to grind out a 1-0 victory. Luckily for Tucson, the Roadrunners were finally able to score as a badly timed line change let Tucson’s Lawson Crouse tie the game on a 3-on-2 odd-man rush.
In the 5 minute, 3-on-3 overtime period Tucson finally got the space they needed to make plays, allowing Dakota Mermis to score the game-winning goal with just 6.8 seconds remaining.
Although last night ended up being a win for Tucson, Chicago showed that the Pacific Division-leading Roadrunners struggle tremendously when playing a defensively minded team. As the season progresses, and Tucson’s reputation as a fast, skilled team grows, expect more teams to use similar strategies when facing the Roadrunners. Being more effective at countering these strategies is a major adjustment that Tucson needs to make going forward if they want to remain on top of the Pacific Division and make the playoffs for the first time in team history.
Up next is the fourth and final meeting of the season between the Wolves and the Roadrunners. The puck drops at 7:05 PM tonight in Tucson, and for the game, Tucson will wear special Olympic-themed jerseys in honor of the AHL players that will attend the Olympics next month.