By Dave Werstine
Long Beach Press Telegram
LONG BEACH, Calif. – It’s Homecoming Night for the Ice Dogs, and it’s not just another promotion but something to truly celebrate.
The Ice Dogs return to the Long Beach Arena Friday to face the Alaska Aces after spending nearly a month on the road – a tough span of nine games for a club struggling to stay in the ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs race.
Instead of playing their way out of the chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the National Conference, the Ice Dogs went 6-3-0 on their season-long trip to keep pace with Victoria and close the gap on ninth-place Utah. Not bad for a team that had just three road wins prior to the trip.
“We could have played our way out of playoff position,” said coach Rick Adduono of the trip. “But it put us back in it. Going .500 is usually a good road trip, but we won six of nine and played eight solid games. It was a real team builder for us and showed that these kids won’t give up.”
The Ice Dogs (19-27-3) go into the start of a five-game homestand six points behind Victoria with five games in hand and are just two points shy of Utah with three games in hand.
While not wanting to look too far ahead, the Ice Dogs can see seventh-place Phoenix, which is nine points away but with three games in hand, and sixth-place Stockton.
“We are not just looking at the bottom edge. We are looking all the way up to Stockton (11 points ahead),” he said. “We don’t want to make the playoffs just to make the playoffs. If we get in, we want to be a tough team to beat.”
Over the past six weeks, the Ice Dogs have turned the corner and have been a tough team to beat. Since early January, they are 10-8-1 and have been in all but two or three games.
So what’s been the difference between the team that went 9-19-2 before this run of good fortune?
Adduono sees his goaltending combination of Brett Jaeger and Mike Brown coming up with the “big save” now. He also sees his team doing a better job of being “accountable” on the ice, playing within the system and positionally. And he can’t say enough about how hard the players have battled game in and game out, noting the improved performances by defenseman Andrew Winnik and forwards Chris Collins, Terry Harrison and Alexei Smirnov among others.
All of which have enabled him to roll three lines of forwards and defensive pairings, a tactic that wears on opponents and makes the Ice Dogs much tougher to play.
“The last month or so, we have been much better,” Adduono said. “The things I have been teaching and preaching are coming together and it’s making a world of difference. But the hard work has got to continue. If we start thinking we are better than we are and stop working, we’re going to be in trouble.”