READING, PA – The first half of the 2017-18 ECHL season is in the books and the Reading Royals finished with a record of 21-17-2 and tallied up 44 points in the standings, good for fourth place in the tight North Division.
The first half of the season for the Royals can be described as a roller coaster as the team had many highs and lows. In this article, we will be taking a look back at the first three and a half months of the regular season and preview what’s coming up for the Royals in the second half.
The Royals began the season with four straight home games and the team won all four. The first three games all went to overtime including the team’s home/season opener back on October 21st which ended with captain Derek Whitmore scoring the second-fastest overtime goal in ECHL history at seven seconds.
When the calendar hit November, the team fell back to Earth as they lost four of their first five games. The Royals would return home and continued that home cooking as they won their first eight home games to tie the franchise history. At the end of the month, the Royals would lose forward Alex Krushelynski to their AHL affiliate the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and hasn’t returned since. While in Reading, Alex put up 23 points (11G-19A) in 20 games. Alex’s excellent play made him the Royals representative in the 2018 ECHL All-Star Classic, though he would not play in the game.
The month of December started out well for the Royals as goalie John Muse recorded his first shutout of the season but after the game, Muse was recalled to Lehigh Valley with an injury up in Philadelphia. This lead to Mark Dekanich being the Royals number one goalie for a couple of weeks. It all started well as he recorded a 50-save shutout nine days after Muse’s shutout but after that, it started to slide downhill. The team would go on and lose five straight games before the winter break which had fans hitting the panic button.
Thankfully, after the winter break, Muse was sent back down and has been lights out in net since his return. On January 7th, Muse recorded his second shutout of the season. He is only three wins away from tying his all-time win total in the ECHL of 16 which was set during the 2011-12 season with the Florida Everblades. That season, the Everblades would go on and win the Kelly Cup and Muse was named the MVP of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
Surprises and Disappointments
During the first half of the season forward Matt Willows was a huge force for the Royals. The former ECHL Rookie of the Year has played in all 40 games for the Royals this season, putting up 34 points which leads the team. After coming over to the Royals last season in a trade with the Allen Americans, Willows is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Reading.
Rookie forward Michael Huntebrinker is having a stellar rookie season with the Royals. Huntebrinker signed with the Royals late last season after his college hockey days and didn’t contribute much. This year, it’s a different story. In 33 games, Michael has put up 21 points. With Krushelynski up with the Phantoms, Huntebrinker was chosen to represent the Royals in the All-Star Game. In the All-Star Game Monday afternoon, Huntebrinker scored the lone goal for the North Division and participated in the rapid-fire shootout challenge. If Michael continues to play this way, don’t be surprised if he’s up with an AHL club in the not so distant future.
As for disappointments, the only player that came to mind was Loic Leduc. The 6-foot-7 defensemen signed with the purple-clad Royals over the summer and had fans in excitement as he was bringing size to the blue line. Leduc left the Royals around Christmas and signed with the Thedford Mines of the rugged LNAH, a league based in Quebec. Leduc would only put up six points all assists in 24 games for Reading.
Right off the hop, the Royals were left to deal with the loss of two players to call-ups to other teams. The first was Adam Comrie who signed a tryout deal with the injury dealt Utica Comets. Comrie has tallied six points; four goals and two assists in 10 games with the Comets. If he continues to produce with Utica, don’t expect Comrie back in Reading anytime soon.
The other player the Royals lost to the AHL was Ryan Penny. Before signing a tryout with the Binghamton Devils, Ryan played in 108 straight regular season games with Reading. This season, Penny has put up 23 points; 12 goals and 11 assists in 36 games with Reading.
As for losing players to their AHL affiliate, Steven Swavely has been splitting time this season between the Royals and the Phantoms. With the Royals, the hometown kid has put 13 points; five goals and eight assists in 21 games.
Second Half Preview
While most teams will kick off their second half on Friday, the Royals will get an extra day of rest and return to action Saturday which will kick off back-to-back games with the Brampton Beast. During the second half, the Royals will only be seeing their longest-tenured rival the Wheeling Nailers four times with three out of the four contests being away from Santander Arena.
And speaking of the road, from February 24th until March 10th the team will embark on a season-long eight-game road trip which will have them going as far north as Brampton, Ontario all the way down to Orlando, Florida. This long bus trip could be a good bonding experience for the Royals as they will be hitting their final patch of games before the Kelly Cup Playoffs afterward.
One of the Royals biggest needs, when they begin their second-half stretch, is getting goaltender Mark Dekanich back on track. Since his 50-save shutout back on December 15th, Dekanich has lost his last eight decisions. With John Muse continuing to have a bounce-back year the Royals need both goalies to bring their “A” game in the team’s final 32 regular season games. Halfway through the season, John Muse has made his case to be the team’s number one goalie and the goalie that can lead them in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if head coach Kirk MacDonald and assistant coach Patrick Wellar continue to rotate the goalies like they did in the first half or will they rely on one goalie more over the other.
As we near the conclusion of the season the North Division is going to be a tough race to see which four teams will make the playoffs since all six teams aren’t out of it yet.