Thursday, 12.15.2016 / 9:35 am CT
By Alex von Keudell
An eight-game undefeated streak which tied the NAHL’s most this season came to an end in overtime last Saturday in Odessa. In addition, a league-leading eight-game overtime winning streak was also broken. Nevertheless, the Wildcats remain the hottest team in the NAHL heading into North Richland Hills this weekend.
Breaking Down the Streak
During their winning streak, the Wildcats outscored their opponents 35-22, went 5-0 on the road, and saw three of their players commit to Division 1 colleges. They took down four different opponents, including the first place Lone Star Brahmas. Not to mention, they did most of it without their leading goal-scorer Ricky Carballo, who returned from a six-game suspension last weekend to score twice in as many games.
Carballo Returns to his Roots
A native of Keller, Texas, Carballo grew up just eight miles away from the Brahmas’ rink. Oddly enough, he has not played in either of the two games in which the Wildcats visited NYTEX Sports Centre this year. He was a healthy scratch there during the pre-season, and was suspended when the Cats played there last. Little to no rust has shown in Carballo’s game following the lengthy absence, and he will surely be raring to go this weekend in front of friends and family.
Left-winger Blake Ripley will be unavailable this weekend due to a shoulder injury. He’s gone home to Wisconsin to have a closer look at it, but he could well miss a bit of time. Ripley was a substantial component of the Wildcats’ winning streak. He’s had nine points in as many games and had a two-goal performance the last time he played at NYTEX. Unfortunate as this might be, the timing could be much worse. He will have the holiday break at least to recover.
The Battle for First Place
What once appeared to be a nearly insurmountable stranglehold on the South Division has diminished into a meager four-point difference for first place. Lone Star has gone .500 over its last ten games and has already played half of its season. If the Wildcats can pull off a road sweep all in regulation time this weekend, they will pull into first place for the first time of the campaign. Doing so, however, will require a great deal of focus and willpower.
Though they’ve had their struggles of late, there’s a reason the Brahmas are in first place. They allow fewer goals per game than almost anybody (2.37) and they boast the second best penalty kill in the league (84.5%). If the Brahmas play to their strengths, quality scoring chances will be scarce.
The reason the Cats were able to defeat the division leaders back in November is because they converted on their intermittent scoring chances. They were outshot by Lone Star 42-26, yet salvaged a 5-4 regulation victory because they capitalized on their opportunities. Missing one of their snipers and hardest workers in Ripley will make taking four points from the series all the more challenging for the Wildcats.
On the last weekend before the holiday break last season, the Wildcats were swept three games to none on home ice by the Brahmas. The team was clearly unfocused and checked out, and probably played their worst hockey of the season. After returning, they won 20 home games in a row.
A major difference, however, is that the Brahmas didn’t have a holiday break last season. They played in Topeka the very next weekend the day after Christmas. There was no reason for them to be checked out early. As for this year, both teams are in the same boat. This will be the last series either team plays until New Year’s weekend, so the focus level will likely be a factor for both sides. Whichever side pays more attention to the present will likely be the victor in this weekend’s series.