Chris Hook, Tucson Roadrunners
Conor Garland scored two goals in the Tucson Roadrunners' 4-3 loss to the San Diego Gulls during their regular season finale on Saturday, April 13.
The Tucson Roadrunners' task in Saturday’s regular season finale was a seemingly easy one: win or lose in overtime to reach the American Hockey League’s playoffs for a second straight season.
Unfortunately for the home side, the finale was not a case of fait accompli, falling to the San Diego Gulls, 4-3.
The team’s fate was sealed on a dazzling second period goal by Gulls forward Sam Carrick, who rushed past a host of Tucson defenders for the go-ahead tally.
That mark, which gave San Diego a 2-1 edge, was the straw that broke the Roadrunners’ back, giving an announced sellout crowd of 6,521 little to cheer about on Fan Appreciation Night.
Tucson entered the AHL’s final day of the regular season needing a win or an overtime loss against the Gulls to get to the postseason, as would a loss by the Colorado Eagles.
The latter option fell off the table midway through Saturday’s contest, as the Eagles held on to beat the San Jose Barracuda, 3-2.
That victory left little wiggle room for Jay Varady’s Roadrunners, especially after the Gulls jumped out to a lead on Ben Street’s goal just over four minutes into the second period.
The Roadrunners’ fate improved early in the third period, when Nick Merkley charged down the ice to block an open net opportunity for the Gulls.
That play came after goalie Adin Hill, who saved 16 of San Diego’s shots, misplayed a puck deep in Tucson’s zone, shoveling the puck right onto the stick of a Gulls forward.
Tucson’s newfound luck reached its apex when forward Conor Garland was able to beat San Diego goalie Jeff Glass to pull the Roadrunners within two with just under 14 minutes to play.
Garland added another tally with 74 seconds to play, converting a goal from just outside the crease to pull the home side within one, 4-3.
The Roadrunners had several chances to tie the game up in the final seconds but couldn’t get the tying salvo past Glass.
The sellout crowd instead trudged its way to the stadium’s exits as “Take it Easy” by The Eagles played over the stadium PA system.
There was no easy way out for Varady, who recapped his first season in Tucson during his postgame comments.
Varady commended his team for their fight against the Gulls in Saturday’s finale, with the team’s one-goal loss serving as an analogy for their season as a whole.
“I thought it was a microcosm of our team all season in terms of the pushback and the competitiveness they had right until the end,” he said. “I thought we endured a lot of tough situations throughout the course of the year in terms of injuries and call ups, and we are a resilient group in terms of how we battle through those situations. And I thought the game kind of went that way as well.”
Team captain Dakota Mermis summed up the team’s tough luck loss by discussing how hard the Roadrunners fought in the final weeks of the regular season to make the 16-team postseason.
“We were one goal short tonight; that's about as close as it gets,” Mermis said. “It stings when we had to make a push and we did. So, to come up one goal short really hurts. We expected to be playing next weekend. That's a different story now.”
Garland, who scored 12 goals in 21 games in Tucson, expressed a similar level of dissatisfaction with the team’s early finale.
“It stinks, obviously,” he said. “You know, there's been eight teams that go on to win the Calder Cup, four seeds down here, so I mean, obviously it stinks. If you get in, you have a chance. We were a little short, so that stinks.”
The toughest part of Saturday’s loss for Pederson, who finished the season with a team-high 23 goals, is how far the team could have gone, if they qualified for the postseason.
Such a feat of misfortune is a fact of life in professional sports, however, sending the Roadrunners into an offseason that no one expected to come so soon.
“I think we've had a tight knit group this year; a young team, but just good leadership up and down throughout the lineup,” he said. “Just a lot of camaraderie in our locker room. So yeah, it sucks. It stings that little extra when you have a good group. In a season like this, when you miss [the playoffs] by a couple of points, or a couple of games down the stretch, kind of like it did tonight, it's just frustrating.”