Southern Stampede begin NZIHL season with unprecedented streak

The current New Zealand Ice Hockey League record for longest winning streak is eight games, set by the 2012 Southern Stampede. After a middling start to the 2012 campaign, the Stampede rallied hard and won the final eight games of the season, though they lost the finals to the Canterbury Red Devils.

In 2015, the Stampede are close to breaking their own record, though this time they’re doing it right out the gate.

The team has swept every other NZIHL club in a double-header, starting with the Botany Swarm, then moving on to the West Auckland Admirals, Canterbury Red Devils, and Dunedin Thunder. Their eight wins include two overtime wins, so they are sitting at 22 points rather than the maximum of 24.

To what can the team attribute their newfound success? Was last year–in which they finished in the middle of the pack–a fluke? The Stampede’s roster was no stranger to injury last year, but all signs point to offseason improvements driving their winning record rather than bad luck the year prior.

For starters, new head coach Adam Blanchettewhose player retirement I covered last year–has had a positive impact in the locker room. Beloved by his teammates both old and new, Blanchette is regarded as a solid, defensively-minded presence who coaches like he played. He was a star defender for the Stampede prior to his retirement and this shows in the systems he’s developed on the bench. Blanchette encourages an active forecheck and heavy pressure through the neutral zone, both aspects of the Stampede’s game that have stood out this year.

“Coach Blanchette has everyone on the same page regarding the forecheck in the offensive and neutral zone which is leading to our team success in creating turnovers. It’s when guys start doing their own thing out there problems start to occur but to this point in the season the team has been pretty good in those areas,” Stampede forward Greg Collins told me after the team’s wins over the Dunedin Thunder.

The addition of defenseman Mitchell Frear to the Stampede lineup certainly doesn’t hurt either. Frear was a standout defender on the Dunedin Thunder, but has since returned to Queenstown to play for his original team. Frear is an active defender who covers a lot of space, utilising clever stick work and positioning to be effective both at even strength and on the penalty kill. He’s the type of player who fits right into the Stampede team that Blanchette is building and in turn, Blanchette utilises him perfectly.

Import defender Luke Frey was a steal for the Stampede this offseason. He’s an exceptionally mobile two-way defender who’s at home on either end of the ice, be it breaking up plays in front of the crease or lurking at the point to fire off his rocket of a wrister. Frey has taken much-needed pressure off the Stampede’s top four D, who struggled visibly last year once a concussion took Blanchette out of the lineup. To sweeten the pot even further, Frey has 8 goals and 11 assists through 8 games.

While the Stampede’s defense has stood out, providing plenty of support for starting goaltender Aston Brookes, Brookes’ play can’t be ignored. He’s having a career season, currently sitting pretty at the top of the NZIHL’s goaltending charts. He’s number one in both GAA and save percentage, currently stopping 91% of shots and allowing only 2.83 goals per game. Brookes has come up big for his squad in all sorts of situations this year, from a heart-stopping shootout win against the Swarm to a game where he kept the offensive juggernaut Red Devils to a single goal.

Last but certainly not least, the Stampede added much-needed offensive firepower to their roster. While they have had a dependable pair of scoring forwards in Mike McRae and Matt Schneider for years, the unfortunate truth was that if a team was able to effectively shut down the Schneider line, they could often neutralise the entire team. Not so in 2015. The current Stampede squad has been able to spread their talent around a bit, which has had the dual benefit of more goals scored and top-six experience for some of their up-and-comers.

The Stampede acquired a pair of high-octane point scorers in Jade Portwood and former ECHL talent Greg Collins, who just finished a season together in the UK. They played together for the EIHL’sEdinburgh Capitals, where Portwood wore the C and both players finished top five in scoring. Their numbers can’t be overlooked–9G and 10A for Portwood, 7G and 11A for Collins–but equally valuable is that their potency draws top defenders from the opposition, thus giving the Schneider-Lee-McRae line much needed breathing room.

Young Stampede forward Callum Burns, fresh off a fantastic World Juniors performance and now wearing the A for his home team, has benefited tremendously from his position on a line with Collins and Portwood. He’s already a rising star in the NZIHL and pairing him with such talented linemates is an excellent exercise in player management by Blanchette.

Burns is learning from the best, scoring more, and skating with more confidence than he ever has.

Of course, judging by their results so far, the same could be said for his entire team. If the Southern Stampede can manage one more victory, they will best their own record for the NZIHL’s longest winning streak. Though their season is only half over, they are already close to clinching a finals berth. They have a bye this upcoming weekend, so we’ll have to wait until they take on the Red Devils in Christchurch on the 11th and 12th of July to see if they can make history.