A sixth consecutive playoff appearance was hardly in doubt as the Allen Americans ground down to the finish line of their inaugural ECHL regular season.
And although capping the year with a 25-point lead over the rest of the Central Division is plenty noteworthy, just as imposing is the hot streak the Americans have ridden into the playoffs.
Allen amassed an 11-game unbeaten streak heading into tonight’s ECHL divisional semifinal opener against the Tulsa Oilers – the puck drops at 7:05 p.m. at the Allen Event Center – helping pad an already gaudy cushion for a divisional title and inspire the kind of momentum head coach Steve Martinson expects to see from a club whose last two postseason runs have resulted in championships.
“Right now, we have the strongest lineup that I feel like we’ve had in months,” Martinson said. “Our lineup looks really strong, we’re playing well and I’d say we’re clicking on all cylinders.”
It’s a much-needed surge for an Allen squad that spent the overwhelming majority of the season nursing a double-digit points lead atop the division. Under those circumstances, it would be justifiable to expect some complacency to set in, given the assurance of a playoff berth, but Martinson has seen his team battle the pratfalls of its fortune.
The Americans aren’t far removed from a month-long stretch from Feb. 16-March 18 where they won just 5-of-14 games. A 4-0 loss to the Wichita Thunder capped that inconsistent spurt, and marked the last time the Americans were defeated in regulation.
“We had some injuries and call-ups, and just weren’t playing as good defensively as we needed to,” Martinson said. “… Since then, I think we’ve started focusing on the playoffs and have been playing better defensive hockey.
“We led the league in offense, so you’re always battling that trade-off between offense and defense. I think we got away from that for a while, but we’re much better defensively now.”
The end result has been a regular-season record of 48-14-6-4 for 106 points, a point total that’s second only to the 107 amassed by the Toledo Walleye.
Several Allen players responsible for that turnaround have been recognized by the ECHL in the past week with a slew of regular-season accolades.
Forward and All-ECHL first-team selection Chad Costello is in the midst of a record-setting campaign in Allen, setting the club’s single-season record for points, assists, power-play assists and plus-minus. Not only did Costello cruise to winning the ECHL scoring title behind 125 points (41 goals, 84 assists), he also received the league’s Sportsmanship Award.
“[Costello] has been outstanding and he’s a fun guy to be around,” Martinson said. “He had a tough year last year with injuries and came back this year with a vengeance.”
Defensemen Justin Baker and Aaron Gens received similar commendation, with the former earning a spot on the ECHL All-Rookie team and Gens being featured on the All-ECHL second team. The latter was joined on the second team by forward Gary Steffes, who led the ECHL in goals scored (44) on just 63 games played.
“Gary had the best year of his career,” Martinson said. “We just got him back from Milwaukee and he’s had a great season. He’s one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever coached.”
Steffes was absent for most of the Americans’ late-season surge after being called up to the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League on March 25, but rejoined Allen on Monday just in time for the postseason.
He and the Americans take the ice tonight for Game 1 of a best-of-7 series against Tulsa, a division rival that Allen is plenty familiar with, dating to their days skating against each other in the CHL.
“We’re familiar with them and have success against [Tulsa], but they’re a dangerous team,” Martinson said. “They’ve got some guys who can score and can really skate, so we’ve got to be on our ‘A’ game to beat them.”
The Americans continue their series with Game 2 at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at the AEC before heading north for a two-game set in Tulsa, with Game 3 taking place at 7:35 p.m. Friday followed by a Saturday skate at the same time.
Should the series return to Allen, Game 5 would take place at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at the Allen Event Center.