On Saturday I was one of the nearly 5,200 fans in attendance to watch the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda take down the Tucson Roadrunners 6-3 in Game 2 of their Pacific Division semifinal series. The minor league affiliates of the local San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes put on an intense back-and-forth affair, until the Barracuda finally broke away in the third period with three unanswered goals to tie the best-of-five series at one game apiece.
The Barracuda’s parent team, the Sharks, might be the talk of the Bay Area after sweeping the Anaheim Ducks earlier this week, but the opportunity to see an AHL playoff game for the first time peaked my interest. So I made the day trip down to Silicon Valley and today I’ll be talking about my three takeaways from the contest.
San Jose’s system built to grind out wins
Since their very first game back in 1991, the Sharks franchise has used the same philosophy for constructing their teams; embracing a game of chemistry and toughness, where the key to winning is wearing down their opponents over the course of a sixty minute game.
The Barracuda are an excellent example of that plan in action. The team doesn’t have any big name prospects on the roster, but they used their size advantage to outmuscle the Roadrunners and win the majority of the puck battles at both ends of the ice. A number of San Jose’s goals came in goalmouth scrambles where the loose puck would end up on a Barracuda stick.
That’s not to say the Cuda don’t have talent, either. Latvian rookie Rudolfs Balcers, who led the team with 48 points during the regular season, had a four point outing in Game 2 and posed a threat every time he was on the ice. Balcers’ linemate Rourke Chartier notched a pair of goals and an assist for three points on the night, and the Barracuda defense held an offensively-charged Tucson squad to just 25 shots.
It’s clear that the San Jose system and team chemistry continue to go hand in hand, and it showed on Saturday night.
Don’t write off Dylan Strome
When a team’s top prospect doesn’t immediately blow us all away, people are very quick to call them a bust. One player who’s gotten that treatment is Dylan Strome, who the Coyotes picked at 3rd overall in 2015 but has just 10 points in 28 NHL games over two seasons.
Strome was highly touted enough in his draft year that only his Erie Otters linemate, Connor McDavid, and Jack Eichel went ahead of him. But now that other Arizona prospects like Clayton Keller and Christian Fischer have passed him on the team’s depth chart, fans and media alike have questioned whether he’ll ever land a permanent spot with the big club.
But from watching him play in person, it became clear to me that we’ve cried “bust” far too quickly.
Strome’s advanced hockey IQ was on full display in Game 2, particularly on his first goal when he evaded San Jose defender Jacob Middleton, cut to the slot and beat goalie Antoine Bibeau high on the glove side. It was a an elite-level play where Strome’s mind was thinking two steps ahead of anyone else on the ice.
His second goal of the night wasn’t nearly as pretty, but Strome simply had the foresight to throw the puck on net before Middleton could strip him of it. His play in Tucson’s losing effort stood out, and it told me that Coyotes fans shouldn’t worry. I have no doubt that Strome’s talent will translate to the NHL level, but patience is going to be key.
AHL games develop more than just players
Obviously, AHL hockey isn’t as big a draw as the NHL. But by being in the building, I realized just how much having a minor league team in San Jose was helping to cement the sport’s roots.
I decided to go to this game almost on a whim, once I realized on Tuesday that I didn’t have a Saturday work shift and tickets were only $15. My seat for such a low price? Row 2 in the Barracuda end of the ice. For a playoff game.
The deals didn’t stop at the gate, either. Once I passed through the SAP Center doors I was handed a rally towel and saw long lines for the concession stands offering $1 hot dogs and $3 beer. Many of the fans had come in groups of four or more, meaning they got to park in the arena’s lot for free as a reward for carpooling. I, on the other hand, paid the full $10.
Such a cheap cost for professional hockey means more people can afford to take their families for a fun night at the rink, something I took notice of the minute I sat down. Parents with children young and old were sitting in nearly every row of the Shark Tank’s lower bowl, far more than you’d see at the average NHL game.
Just to the right of my section’s entrance was a fun zone where kids could get their face painted or shoot a puck at an inflatable target wall. And during the second intermission, people of all ages lined up on the sides of the boards to play “Chuck-A-Puck”, where fans toss plush pucks over the glass and try to be the closest to the bullseye of a target tarp laid at center ice.
Seeing so many families at the game reminded me of my own childhood, when my parents would take me to the Pacific Coliseum to watch the WHL’s Vancouver Giants a few times every season. Those days of watching Milan Lucic and Evander Kane turned me into the diehard fan I am today.
So even if just a handful of this year’s Barracuda make it to the NHL, they and the Sharks can take pride in knowing that just by playing here and winning games, they’re growing the next generation of Bay Area hockey fans.
Thanks for reading! How much do you follow/watch the AHL? Leave a comment below!