State Of The Storm: Part One

Saturday’s 2-3 shootout loss versus the Huntsville Havoc was game number fourteen for the Storm in their inaugural season that spans fifty-six regular season games.   For those of you, like me, whose math skills lack so greatly it sometimes takes a calculator to count your fingers, that means we are a quarter of the way through the franchise’s first regular season.

To honor this milestone we will not be doing our regular look at the Quad Cities’ States of Hockey this week, but instead taking a look at The State Of The Storm through the first quarter.

 

Opening night fans saw a win they will never forget.  Facing off against their rivals Quad City learned early the largest obstacle they would face to begin the season would be their lack of experience playing together.  Throughout the game the Storm showed flashes of cohesion and skill but were more often than not on their collective heels handling the onslaught of the Rivermen’s offensive attack. 

After Joe McKeown scored the first goal in franchise history to tie the game at one the visitors rattled off two unanswered goals and it seemed the game would proceed in their favor. 

Immediately after the game (and still today) I thought a single shift from Mitch Mueller, Al Graves and John Scully turned the game.  The Rivermen avoided fights and physicality all night long which allowed their game plan to be executed fairly flawlessly.  During the aforementioned shift that occurred about halfway through the third period the physicality was cranked up.  Each guy got in at least a lick or two and Al Graves attempted to square off with Alec Hagaman who wanted no part of the action.  Out of the scrum Graves and Mueller were both assessed roughing minors, as was Peoria defenseman Domenico Argento.  Despite being short-handed it felt as if momentum was up for grabs.  The Storm took it.

Dalton Mills made it a one-goal game with a wicked wrist shot on a short handed 2-on-1.  Quad City continued to rally and tied the game when Taylor McCloy made it 3-3 on the power-play with 2:26 remaining in regulation.

In one of the strangest overtimes you’ll see Peter DiSalvo continued to shine, shutting down a penalty-shot try from Alec Hagaman for his 31st save of the night.  Just over two minutes later Vladimir Nikiforov ended the game with a PS of his own by going forehand, backhand, five-hole for the win.

The game solidified the feeling that hockey was back in the Quad Cities and the team on the ice was one the community could rally behind.

 

Then the Storm lost seven-straight games.  Not great, to be sure, but it was a streak that in reflection is not only understandable but a valuable early learning experience for a new team.  In my mind the streak can be easily divided in two phases:

1.)     The bad phase:  yes, everything about a losing streak is bad but the first two games of the seven-game skid were especially nasty.  The Storm simply did not play well, losing 6-1 and 6-2 to Peoria.  They looked uncertain, uncomfortable and were unable to adjust to the Rivermen’s speed and stretch passes which resulted in a number of breakaway chances and put Quad City, again, on their heels for most of the game both nights.  Bad, yes, but also to be expected with a brand-new franchise playing together for the first time.  Another incredibly bad part of this bad phase is that the Storm lost defenseman Kristaps Nimanis to injury.  Nimanis played very well before being injured and the team is hopeful he will be able to rejoin the roster some point late in the season.

2.)     The learning phase: the next five games were losses as well, but very different in appearance.  Processes were being learned and chemistry was starting to be seen.  Was it perfect?  No.  But there was enough to be confident this team would start competing night in and night out.  Four one-goal losses and a two-goal loss that included an empty net goal came at the hands of Birmingham, Peoria and Pensacola.  The Rivermen and Bulls had separated themselves as two of the top teams in the league and remain in the one and three spot today.  The last loss came on the road versus Pensacaola after an irksome bus trip. 

After half a day of rest and recovering in the Florida sun the Storm took it to the Ice Flyers 5-1.  Not only did the game end the losing streak, it birthed a four-game win streak.  Quad City squashed Pensacola again, this time at the TaxSlayer Center and defeated Evansville twice after that.  Evansville got revenge with a road win against a short-handed Storm team and most recently the Havoc scraped two points out of a hard-fought shootout win 3-2.

Currently the Storm are positioned in 8th place, the final playoff spot in the SPHL.  That positioning has been earned despite playing the least amount of games this season of any team, having at least three games in hand with four of the other nine teams in the league.

The Storm roster has evolved through the first fiftyish days of this season.  Less penalties, more discipline and more speed have created a fast and physical roster that is tough to play against.  Eric Levine and Peter Di Salvo have allowed the guys upfront to play with confidence and know that they have a guy protecting the net on the other side that will make the saves he needs to and get some of the ones he shouldn’t as well.  Joe McKeown leads Quad City in all major offensive categories with five goals, five assists and a +6 rating.  The Storm blue line is fairly solid top to bottom, which is somewhat miraculous with the amount of turnover there has been at this position.  Kristaps Nimanis, Troy Henley, Jake Schultz, Junior Harris and Don Olivieri are all defenseman who started the season with the team and are now playing in the ECHL, off the roster or on IR.  Of all the items Storm head coach Dave Pszenyczny should be given credit for, this may be highest on the list.  The additions of Cody Walsh, Tyler Minx, Sean Kacerosky and most recently Ondrej Misovic (who played very well Saturday) have made the frequent defensive departures go relatively unnoticed on the ice. 

The management of the locker room through a seven-game losing streak is another item Coach Chezy should be credited for.  It is uncommon to see the quality of play improve through a skid like that.  Aside from the 6-5 OT loss to Birmingham, play did improve, and despite obvious frustration the team kept working very hard and broke through in a big way.  Give the players credit for the wins but recognize that it takes guidance through those valleys to come out of them. 

So here we sit, preparing to fire up the #ColdWarOn74 again tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM in Peoria.  Starting the second quarter of the season the same way we started the first.  As the broadcaster of the team, I see it as a couple of my responsibilities to remain relatively unbiased on the air and keep a realistic view of how things on the ice are proceeding.  But I also want this team to win and succeed!  With both those factors in mind I am pleased with what we saw from the Storm in the first fourteen games of the season and I expect things will continue to gel and improve.  Additionally, for all the good things these guys have done on the ice, they have been phenomenal off the ice as well.  Every player on this roster has done what has been asked of them and more as it pertains to getting out in the community and being an ambassador for the team and an example for kids and young adults who look up to them. 

The first part of this inaugural season has been a blast.  Let’s keep it going.  Go Storm.

Brian Rothenberger