The Rebels return to the ice on New Year’s Day to begin preparing for the second half of the season. The team will play a four game home stand against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Kenai River Brown Bears. And then the schedule works against them as they will play eighteen of their next 26 games on the road, including a two week trip to Alaska in mid-January. While the task will be daunting, the Rebels, at the moment, are sitting pretty after the first 30 games of the year: possessing the best record in the North American Hockey League.
This time last year at the break the Rebels had a 19-11 record for 38 eight points and were in second place. This year the Rebels have a 24-5-1 record for 49 points, which is tops in the NAHL. The team has scored 112 goals which are third most in the league while they have allowed the least: 51. They are currently in first place in the East Division five points ahead of the New Jersey Titans (although the Titans have played three more games).
Before the season began head coach Joe Coombs and new assistant coach Nick Peruzzi (Josh Brown left to become the head coach of Arizona State University’s ACHA team), felt confident in its returning players. After all, the team did have ten players (including Affiliate Player Jensen Zerban) returning from last year’s division championship team. They felt the leadership would be there with Dom Garcia and Drew Blackmun, and they felt returning blueliners Brennan Kapcheck, Gvido Jansons, Ryan Solomon and Michael Underwood would be the team’s anchor.
Coombs, Peruzzi and the scouting department took a calculated change in the makeup from last year’s team: it became younger and drastically faster. The team added Gianluca Esteves, Dustin Manz, Aaron Maguyon, Adam Peck, Brendan Cherwalk, Joey Abel, Peter Zhong, Shane McMahan, Andreas Maier, Ryan Patrick and others to the front line while it added Justin Smith, Kolby Vegara, Martino Picariello and Reid Miller (who is the youngest on the team) to the backend.
The question for the team, however, was between the pipes. Trevor Micucci was traded to the Minnesota Wilderness while Darion Hanson went to the United States Hockey League. As the team began the season sweeping the Northeast Generals, the picture in the nets became very clear at the league showcase in Blaine, MN: welcome Mareks Mitens.
Mitens, 18, from Ventspils, Latvia, probably has had one of the best starts as a goalie in the history of the NAHL. Currently playing for Lativa’s World Junior team (along with Jansons), Mitens leads almost every positive goalie statistic in the league: most wins (18), best goals against average (1.32), save percentage (.945) and most shutouts (8). He is tied for first with most games played (22) and second in minutes played (1,270). He has been the backbone of the team’s success. He was the league’s goaltender of the month for October and November and runner up in September.
The team had a very successful showcase going 3 – 1 with their lone loss against the Bismarck Bobcats (in which the team started poorly and were down 3 to 1 before ultimately losing 5 – 3). They beat current Midwest division leader Janesville Jets 4 – 0 (Mitens first shutout of the season) in the first game. Shane McMahan (the team’s first round draft pick) scored in overtime to beat the Minnesota Magicians, and then Miten’s earned his second shutout as the Rebels defeated the Wichita Falls Wildcast 3 – 0.
Since the Showcase, the Rebels, so far, have never looked back despite losing two key players: Shane McMahan (he went back to play in the USHL) and Andreas Maier (health reasons – two concussions). However, the team has added veteran defenseman Andrew Noel and forward Auggie Moore to the mix.
Andrew Bellant leads the team in points with 29 (16 goals and 13 assists). He is the team’s leading goal scorer as well. Garcia is second on the team with 28 points (9 goals and 19 assists) while Esteves has 27 points (9 goals and 18 assists). Kapcheck and Jansons each have 26 points and are tied for first in the league for most points by defensemen. Blackmun and Maguyon have 22 points while Evgeny Yakovlev has 20 points.
Bellant leads the team in penalty minutes with 97 while Solomon has the best +/- percentage of 25. The Rebels are eighth in the league on the power play converting 22% of their chances into goals while they are second in the league on the penalty kill preventing their opponent from scoring 85.4% of the time.
Jack Leavy, Mitens goalie partner, has played well when called upon. He has appeared in seven games and has a 5-1-1 record with a 2.41 goals against average and .909 save percentage with one shutout.
After their four home games in the beginning of January, the team will travel to Alaska for four games, then return home but play away games divisional opponents. In fact, after their four games in the beginning of the month, the Rebels only play eight home games for the rest of the regular season. The Rebels have a 6 – 0 record against the Generals; they are 3 – 1 against the Johnstown Tomahawks, 8-2 against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights and 4 – 2 against the New Jersey Titans.
With very strong divisional opponents, the Rebels have their work cut out for them in order to repeat as East Division champions. However, Coombs is constantly stressing to the team one game at a time and don’t look back. Hopefully, the team will repeat last year’s team by advancing to the league’s final four but having a different outcome: winning the Robertson Cup.