(Photo: Cody Wooten)
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The Wildcats and Killer Bees conclude their eight-game regular-season series this week with tilts Thursday and Friday night, in addition to completing a previously-suspended contest from Dec. 13. In their first trip to Rio Grande Valley this season, the ‘Cats picked up a 3-1 win on Dec. 12, and appeared poised to complete a weekend sweep when they skated out to a 3-0 lead the next night. However, deteriorating ice conditions forced a suspension of play, preventing the teams from closing out the contest at the time. More recently, these two teams split a weekend series at the Kay Yeager Coliseum the last time they squared off; Rio Grande Valley handed Wichita Falls its only shutout loss of the season in a 1-0 affair on Jan. 16, before the red-and-black returned the favor the next night, stymieing the Bees in a 2-0 win. Colin Staub leads all Wildcats skaters with six points (one goal, five assists) against RGV, while Austin Beaulieu (2-3-5) and Matt Koch (0-5-5) have had strong showings against the Bees as well. Dating back to 2013-14, Wichita Falls owns an 8-4-1 mark against and the Killer Bees, which includes a 4-1-0 mark at State Farm Arena in Hidalgo.
Reading Up on Rio
The Killer Bees enter this weekend’s action locked in a tight battle for one of the final two playoff spots in the South Division, sitting in sixth place with a record of 22-23-10 and 54 points. The Bees were one of the division’s hottest teams at one point in the second half, posting an 11-4-3 record from Jan. 1 to Feb. 27 to build a cushion in their battle for sixth and a playoff spot. However, Rio Grande Valley has slipped a bit recently, and after taking just two points over the past four games, RGV finds itself just two points ahead of the seventh-place Amarillo Bulls. The Killer Bees remain a tough opponent though, particularly on home ice at the State Farm Arena. The Bees own a 13-8-4 record at home and are averaging 2.80 goals-against-per-game as the home side, a mark that stands below their season-average of 3.05 GA/gm. RGV is led on offense by veteran forward and Arizona State University-commit Anthony Croston, who has 39 points (13 goal, 26 assists) in 55 games played, followed by Parker Wood (12-19-31). Additionally, Dallas Gerads (20-10-3) has played a large part in the Bees’ attack recently, posting five goals and an assist over his last five games. In net, Ben Johansson is 13-8-5 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .894 save percentage, and Nick Schmit owns a 9-14-5 mark, 2.90 GAA and .899 save percentage. Both have appeared in 31 games, however Schmit has seen more time in the second-half of the season, standing as the goaltender of record in 17 of 26 since Christmas.
Now Where Were We
When Wichita Falls and Rio Grande Valley begin play on Thursday evening, the two teams will resume play in the previously-suspended contest from Dec. 13. Before unplayable ice conditions forced a halt in proceedings, the ‘Cats had seized control of the contest thanks to a pair of second-period tallies. After Austin Albrecht’s power-play goal helped the red-and-black open up a 1-0 lead in the first period, the Wildcats stretched that lead early in the second when Tommy Apap buried Austin Beaulieu’s centering feed at the top of the crease at 2:22 of the frame. Wichita Falls then expanded its edge to three at 11:18 of the second when, off a face-off, Nikita Litviak floated the puck down the ice for Evan Okeley to chase. Okeley collected the puck, spun at the circle, and fed to a trailing Litviak in the slot to blast into the roof of the net. Play will resume with 6:04 remaining in the second period and the Wildcats holding a 3-0 lead on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Details Confirmed for Completion of Suspended Game
The Wichita Falls Wildcats and Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, along with the North American Hockey League, recently confirmed details for the completion of the game between the Wildcats and Killer Bees from Dec. 13 that was suspended due to unplayable ice conditions with the Wildcats leading 3-0 and 6:04 remaining in the second period. The two teams will resume the game at 6:30 p.m. on Mar. 19 from the point when play was suspended, and will play the contest to its completion as normal. To accommodate the completion of the suspended contest, puck drop for the game originally scheduled for Mar. 19 will now take place at 7:45 p.m., rather than 7:30 p.m. as originally scheduled.
Shaw Rewrites Another Rookie Record
Goaltender Austin Shaw has enjoyed a strong season in his first year of junior hockey. Boasting a record of 24-7-2, the Colorado-native has set a new team record for most wins in a single-season by a Wildcats goaltender in his first season of junior hockey, surpassing Evan Cowley’s mark of 22 wins set during the 2012-13 campaign. This is not the first time Shaw has written himself into the Wildcats record-book this season. Previously, his shutout streak of 106:09 stretching over his first two career appearances set a new franchise record for longest shutout streak to start a career by a Wildcats goaltender, surpassing Eric Gravaglia’s mark of 75:39 to start his career in 2010-11.
Sights on Sixty
After reaching the 50-point plateau with a goal against the Wenatchee Wild on Mar. 6 and posting five points over his last three games, forward Colin Staub now has his sights set on reaching 60 points. Should Staub pick up five points over the Wildcats’ final six contests, he would become the first skater to reach 60 points for Wichita Falls since Brian Sheehan posted 60 on 29 goals and 31 assists in 2009-10. Staub would also be just the ninth skater in team history to register 60 points in a single season, joining: Kevin Huck (24-54-78), Chad Costello (29-34-63) and Kyle Kramer (29-33-62) in 2004-05; Kramer (27-41-68) in 2005-06; Adam Cardwell (32-59-91), Luke Salazar (41-46-87) and Grant Everett (19-50-69) in 2007-08; and Sheehan (29-31-60) in 09-10.
Around the Division
As the regular season enters its final two weeks, there is still much to be determined around the South Division despite the fact that four teams have already clinched a postseason berth. At the top of the standings, just five points separate Lone Star in first and Wichita Falls in third, with the Topeka RoadRunners nestled in second with a one-point lead over the ‘Cats. The Wildcats still have every chance of claiming the South Division title thanks to two games-in-hand on the Brahmas and a season-ending showdown in North Richland Hills on Mar. 27 and 28. Lower down the division table, three teams are battling for the final two playoff spots. Wenatchee currently sits in fifth, one point ahead of Rio Grande Valley, who in turn hold a two-point edge over the seventh-place Amarillo Bulls. This weekend’s action will go a long way towards determining the finishing order in the South. Aside from the Wildcats’ trip to Rio Grande Valley, this weekend sees the first-place Brahmas face a stern road test with two games against a playoff-hungry Wild team in Wenatchee. Additionally, the ‘Runners will have their hands full in their final home series of the regular season when they host a desperate Bulls bunch for a pair of tilts.