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Roadrunners’ home playoff debut a rousing success

(Twitter Photo/@RoadrunnersAHL)

TUCSON, Ariz. – There was a tailgate event in 92-degree heat. There were sombreros and cowbells at a hockey game. There was a WhiteOut in Arizona for the first time in six years. And then there was a blowout.

The Tucson Roadrunners sure know how to throw a party.

Michael Bunting, Lawson Crouse, Lane Pederson, Mike Sislo, Andrew Campbell and Mario Kempe scored in the first 41 minutes of action, Dylan Strome had three assists and the Roadrunners routed the San Jose Barracuda, 6-0, to take a 2-1 series lead in their best-of-five, first-round American Hockey League playoff series at Tucson Arena on Wednesday.

Goalie Adin Hill stopped all 21 shots he faced to earn his first playoff shutout.

Just as important as the result, the Roadrunners gave their growing fan base another building block in this budding relationship. Bunting scored just 2:27 into the game and the crowd of 4,799 was revved up for the remainder of the night. The first-ever professional playoff hockey game in the Old Pueblo was a rousing success.

“It was pretty crazy,” Crouse said. “All year long, they’ve been very good to us but tonight it was like they put it on another level.

“It’s fun to play in front of. You can really see that the people of Tucson care about hockey. When they come out and support us it makes a huge difference.”

There is something inherently charming about minor-league hockey anyway, but the Roadrunners have taken great pains to forge a closer bond with their fans by granting greater access and deeper connections. Fans flow so freely into the lower regions of Tucson Arena that games feel as much cocktail party as they do sporting event. In between periods on Wednesday, spectators lined the roped-off walkway where the players exit the locker room to take the ice. Kids always get the front row for a chance to fist bump the players as they pass. It’s a quintessential minor-league moment.

“We preach service down here,” team president Bob Hoffman said. “We hope it pays off and we feel it already is. We’re second overall in the AHL right now in brand new tickets for the 2018-19 season.”

Of course, winning is a major piece of any successful formula. The Roadrunners have been doing a lot of that this season. They entered the playoffs as Pacific Division champions and the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. Their .662 winning percentage was the third-highest in the league behind the Toronto Marlies (.737) and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (.684). All of this came in Year 2 of the team’s existence — a remarkable start for what many considered a hockey outpost, deep in the desert, one hour north of the Mexican border.

“Last year’s start gave them the sense there was a really good hockey club and then you bring in the next class,” said Roadrunners general manager Steve Sullivan, who is also the Coyotes assistant GM. “[Nick] Merkley, Crouse, Strome, [Kyle] Capobianco along with the development of the players that were there, we thought those guys would make a difference and they have so far.”

The Roadrunners got off to a hot start in their first season, but they faded down the stretch after team captain Craig Cunningham collapsed on the ice and nearly died. Following a two-game split in San Jose last week, there was concern that the Roadrunners’ youth and inexperience might be an Achilles heel in their first postseason. Those feelings dissipated quickly on Wednesday.

“We wanted a win,” Bunting said. “We haven’t had the best home record during the season but that doesn’t matter in the playoffs. I think we showed that today.”

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