After a rough winter in the months of December and January, the Cincinnati Cyclones were a team towards the bottom of the ECHL’s Western Conference and Midwest Division. Heading into the last few months of the regular season, the Cyclones needed something that would push them over the hump and get them out of the slump they were in.
Coaches Matt Macdonald and Cam Keith knew it was time to make some moves and get this team back to playing the way they had prior to Thanksgiving when the Cyclones were actually in first place in the Division and in the top three of the Conference.
It all began back in late January, and the Cyclones made two specific moves that have been vital to this team ever since. Right before the road trip to Allen, the team claimed goaltender Andy Iles off waivers as well as shipping veteran defenseman Mike Ratchuk to Norfolk in exchange for forward Tommy Mele and defenseman Andrew Blazek. With those two moves, Cincinnati wound up taking two of three from the defending Kelly Cup Champions in the Allen Americans, and that pretty much was the “slump buster” that kickstarted what was going to be a tremendous month of hockey for the Cyclones.
Four more moves would occur to help solidify this Cyclones team and gear them up for a potential playoff run. Defenseman Jason Binkley was acquired from Utah for future considerations. Forward Colin Mulvey was acquired from South Carolina for future considerations. Defenseman Ben Schmidt was shipped to Toledo to complete the trade for goaltender Neil Conway from over the offseason. Lastly, we saw forward Garrick Perry leave the team to head back home and pursue other careers.
A bit of roster turnover over the past few weeks, however it worked out greatly in Cincinnati’s favor as throughout the month of February, the Cyclones went 9-3-0-1, outscoring opponents 44-30 in that time frame.
8-1-0-1 in their last ten games, points in five straight games, Cincinnati now sees themselves in prime position as they currently hold sixth place in the Western Conference (tied with Utah with 64 points, but the Grizzlies own the tiebreaker at the moment with more wins) and second place in the Midwest Division. They sit three points back of the Fort Wayne Komets for first place in the Division. If the playoffs were to start tomorrow, Cincinnati would meet the third-seeded Idaho Steelheads in the first round for a rematch of the 2010 Kelly Cup Finals. However with fifth through eighth place in the Conference separated by just four points, playoff seeding is bound to change come April.
The key to the Cyclones success has been a pleasant surprise in goaltender Andy Iles. Ever since coming to Cincinnati, he has been absolutely incredible between the pipes. Fresh off waivers, he’s been the workhorse as well getting starts in 17 of the last 20 games. In his time with Cincinnati, Iles has compiled a record of 11-5-1, a goals against average of 2.37 and a save percentage of 0.916.
To go even deeper, in the month of February, Iles has a record of 8-3-1, a goals average of 2.12, and a save percentage of 0.927. You best believe he’ll be getting a nomination for ECHL Goaltender of the Month for February. I think it’s safe to say the Cyclones have found their playoff goalie in the case Brad Thiessen does not return from the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.
The offensive speed and skill this team has-has began to show its face again. Their top three forwards in Jack Downing, Andrew Yogan, and Zach Budish have combined for 61 goals, 62 assists, are are a +38. They’re also getting secondary contributions from Nick Huard, who was on a nine points in six games stretch recently, as well from newly acquired Colin Muley, who has six points in his eight games back in Cincinnati since the 2013-2014 season. Tommy Mele is another notable offensive name as he’s tallied 13 points in his 20 since joining the Cyclones from Norfolk.
Through much of that winter stretch where the Cyclones really just lost their footing, defense had been a major struggle. Thankfully, it has greatly improved. Jonathan Diaby and Andrew Blazek, who both had struggled early on in the season, have played some of their best hockey all season. What really shows how greatly the Cyclones have improved, was seeing Garrett Noonan receive ECHL Player of the Week Honors back on February 16th for picking up two goals and five assists during a perfect 4-0-0-0 week. Even though Noonan was recently called up to the AHL, the Cyclones are still in good hands on the back-end with guys like Riley Weselowski and Brett Wysopal, who have stepped up their games tremendously over the past several weeks.
With only 17 games remaining on the Cyclones’ schedule, 13 of them will come against Midwest Division foes with four being split between Toledo and Wheeling sprinkled in between. The majority of those divisional games coming against Indy and Quad City; both whom are chasing Cincinnati for a playoff spot and both whom the Cyclones have struggled with. Cyclones absolutely cannot afford to take their foot off the gas pedal in the final month and a half stretch of the season.
A month ago, Cincinnati was just another team trying to hang on for a playoff spot. Now, they have a chance to go for a Division crown and even secure home ice for the 1st round of the playoffs. That’s going to be what motivates this team to continue pushing the rest of the way. The Cyclones are safe by no means, but I’m confident this is the group that takes this team to the next level.
And I have to tell you, after missing out on postseason fun last season, nothing would make me happier than to see the Kelly Cup Playoffs return to Downtown Cincinnati in April.
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