Third Time's The Charm(?) - Atlanta Firebirds

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Old 11-28-2018, 09:17 AM   #9
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Re: Third Time's The Charm(?) - Atlanta Firebirds

Fire Brigade: Postcards From Training Camp

Whether it's the general optimism of a new season, or whether Vegas raised the bar for what an expansion team might be able to accomplish in its first season, there's a sense of optimism and fun in the Atlanta locker room as training camp begins.

As expected, newcomers... yeah, they're all newcomers but you know what we mean... Ryan Kesler and David Perron have been working together with RW Jesper Fast on what is shaping up as the #1 line, and early indications are that Kesler will be wearing the captain's C when the season starts. We asked Kesler how he felt about accepting the mantle of "face of the franchise".

"I think that's something that's more for you guys to debate about than anything else. We've got a room full of professionals who have been around this game; it's not like being the captain or being the guy they brought in via trade means these other guys don't know their roles or how to get themselves ready for games. As far as 'face of the franchise'... if that's a thing coming from the fans... I mean, who doesn't like fans wearing your sweater or asking for an autograph? If it's about lists and rankings and stuff... I'm just here to play hockey and try to help this team compete."

The second line is shaping up as LW Rick Nash, C Riley Nash (teammates are already beginning to dub them as "Big Nacho" and "Little Nacho"), and RW Craig Smith. Smith, not wanting to be the odd Nash out, has been leaning into situation with aplomb, showing up to an early practice as "Reggie Nash", complete with a fake mustache, Hanson Brothers glasses, and a self-made stick-tape nameplate.

The third line will be a bit of a speed line, with Mark Letestu centering for Andrew Cogliano and Darren Helm (playing out of position on the right wing). "We're a little older, but we can still skate with the kids. Maybe teach 'em a few things", said Helm.

This would seem to leave Carl Hagelin, Adam Lowry, and Tyler Pitlick as the 4th line for now.

On defense, Petrovic and Larsson have been working together as a pair, as have Del Zotto and Connor Murphy. This has left veteran Kevin Bieksa working round-robin with the younger guys -- Christian Djoos, Gustav Olofsson, and Adam Pelech. The latter situation has led to the creation of a makeshift shrine outside Bieksa's stall, with the younger blue-liners leaving "offerings" for dispensation of his hockey wisdom -- on the day we were there, it held a Red Bull, a pack of gum, a keychain with the Atlanta Braves' logo, and (somewhat inexplicably) a Taylor Swift CD.

Between the pipes, Philipp Grubauer has been all but named the starter. The real question is whether Linus Ullmark will stay in Atlanta and get some starts in a 1A/1B fashion, or whether he'll go down to the minors to see action every day, in which case Jaroslav Halak would back up Grubauer.

The other excitement in camp was getting a first look at top pick Nikolai Sbruev, and early indications are he's going to be a good one (Ed: not fully scouted, but showing as Elite and already a 77 overall). Sbruev has been working a line with C Dominik Simon and RW Nail Yakupov. We asked Yakupov if he felt like his experience as a former #1 overall gave him some insights that would allow him to mentor Sbruev.

"It's not quite the same situation, #1 overall is a bigger thing, a bigger stage. But maybe there are some things I can share about adjusting to NHL life that would be useful. I think the biggest thing will be to bring out the best in each other on the ice, and the other stuff will take care of itself."

Center Manuel Greffe (1-21-21) and defenseman Ryan Merkley (2-4-35) have also been drawing rave reviews; neither is ready-to-go as Sbruev, but both may end up making their stays in Birmingham short ones. We're also hearing some decent early buzz about 4th-round pick Ray Finley (4-3-99). On the other hand, we've been hearing some disappointment with 2nd-round pick Filip Hallander (2-29-61) -- an unnamed source in the organization characterized it as "not a total flameout, he'll probably still make an NHL roster at some point, but maybe not the difference-maker we hoped he'd be". (Ed: Hallander's ceiling has dropped to Bottom 6 as we've scouted him better).
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Old 11-28-2018, 11:22 PM   #10
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Re: Third Time's The Charm(?) - Atlanta Firebirds

2018 Pre-Season Results

9/25 vs Florida -- L, 6-4
Quiet first two periods; fireworks erupt in the 3rd, turning a 2-1 snore into a shootout. Finley, Yakupov, Leier, and Lowry tally in the losing effort; Hoffman gets a hat trick for the Panthers.

9/27 @ Boston -- L, 3-2 (SO)
Perron and Lowry stake the Firebirds to a 2-0 lead, but the wheels come off in the 3rd, and the coup de grace is applied in the shootout.

9/30 vs Toronto -- L, 5-2
Close game early, but Toronto pulls away late. Sbruev and Kesler score in the losing effort.

10/2 @ Tampa Bay -- L, 2-0
Atlanta gets nothing going on offense (not just goal-less -- only 22 shots), while Tampa puts a pair up on Halak.

10/3 @ Buffalo -- W, 4-1
The first pre-season win comes as Atlanta fires off four unanswered goals in the 3rd period. Pirri and Letestu score in the first two minutes of the 3rd to erase a 1-0 deficit; Helm and Letestu (again) add insurance later on.

10/6 vs Montreal -- W, 5-4 (SO)
Another big 3rd period by the 'Birds forces OT, and Beau Bennett buries the winner in the shootout. In regulation, Kesler notched a pair; Bennett and Hagelin scored the other two.

10/8 - vs Ottawa -- L, 3-1

The preseason ends on a down note, as a scoreless first slowly slips away. Letestu briefly gives the home team the lead early in the 2nd, but Duchene and Smith answer back later in the period, and Gaborik adds an insurance tally in the final minute of play.


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Old 12-02-2018, 07:08 PM   #11
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The Future Is Now: Sbruev Makes Opening Day Roster
Firebirds announce starting roster and captains

In a bit of a surprise move, Nikolai Sbruev, the team's top draft choice, survived final training camp cuts to make the Opening Day roster. Even more surprising, Sbruev was seen working on right wing on the #1 line with David Perron and Ryan Kesler.

"The first question was whether the kid had the skills to play at this level, and he showed in training camp that he does," said GM Ian Baxter. "Once we decided he was ready for the big stage, we felt it would be best to put him in a position to succeed, and that meant letting him work with players who can bring out the best in him and vice versa."

To accomodate Sbruev on the #1 line, Jesper Fast appears to now be skating with the 3rd line with Cogliano and Letestu, bumping veteran Darren Helm to more of a utility role to start the season. "One of the reasons we went back to Detroit and took another look at Darren is we felt he was the sort of guy who could plug in anywhere on the depth chart. We still expect him to see the ice a fair amount, even in this new role."

The two remaining training camp lines (Nash-Nash-Smith and Hagelin-Lowry-Pitlick) remain undisturbed to start the season.


As was widely rumored, center Ryan Kesler was designated the team captain. RW Craig Smith and LW David Perron were named as the two alternates. "These guys represent veteran leadership and deep experience to a team that's a little on the young side. That doesn't mean other guys might not play a leadership role as the season progresses, but we expect them to set the tone for us out of the gate.


Mirco Mueller had flown a little under the radar in training camp, as other guys seemed to be getting the bulk of the work with the starters while Mueller often paired with guys pegged for the minors. But when the team released its depth chart for the opener, Mueller was listed on the second defense pair with Connor Murphy, hopping over Olofsson and Pelech, who ended up headed for Birgmingham. Alex Petrovic and Adam Larsson stay together on the first pair, and Michael Del Zotto is now paired with Christian Djoos, putting Kevin Bieksa into the 7th defense role people assumed he was signed to fill.


Some of the early reports were that the Firebirds might try to open up the competition in net, or at least create a 1A/1B situation with Philipp Grubauer. However, in a move that was obvious in hindsight, the team recalled Jaroslav Halak to serve as backup and sent Linus Ullmark to the minors so he could see more regular action.

"You have a young guy like Linus, it's tempting to want to get him up there and see what he can do, but I think it's better for his overall development to be working regularly," said Baxter. "I hope he takes this move in the spirit intended and realize it's not a lack of confidence or a negative reflection; if anything, it's our way of saying that we're investing in his long-term growth as a player."


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Old 12-05-2018, 10:36 PM   #12
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October 2018: 'Birds Afire To Start Season

All the preparation is done, it's time to take to the ice and see how this team plays in real games. Let's get right to it.

10/12 @ Edmonton – 3-2 W
It wasn’t pretty, but let the record reflect that Rick Nash scored the first goal in team history, though he got a helping hand from an Edmonton defenseman knocking a rebound into his own net. Atlanta then built a 3-0 lead on goals by Carl Hagelin and Craig Smith. But then Connor McDavid remembered he was one of the best players on the planet, scoring twice within about 4 minutes to narrow the gap to 3-2 late in the 2nd. Atlanta, however, held the Oilers in check in the 3rd, killing two penalties en route to an inaugural win.

On a side note: minor-league goalie Linus Ullmark immediately went down with back spasms and will be sidelined for a week or two. Don't think that has a major impact, but worth noting.

10/15 vs Dallas – 2-1 W
It’s the Firebirds’ home opener, and the kid makes his first NHL goal a huge one: Nikolai Sbruev scores the eventual game-winner about halfway home in the 3rd to break a 1-1 deadlock. A few minutes earlier, Dallas’ Devin Shore had just taken the air out of the arena by scoring right after Atlanta had killed a 5-on-3 penalty. Kesler scored the other goal for Atlanta. Grubauer stopped 35 out of 36 shots faced.

10/17 vs Ottawa – 4-2 W
Another treat for the home crowd. It was an even 2nd period, as both teams scored a pair in the middle frame (Duchene and Pageau for the visitors; Kesler and Petrovic for the home team). But Riley Nash book-ended those goals with solo tallies in the 1st and 3rd to provide the margin of victory.

We pause for a really quick look at the draft. It's way too early to draw any real conclusions, except our scout has determined Russian RW Viktor Kovalev is shaping up as a Franchise talent.

Also, while we're screwing around in the draft, Philadelphia came in with a trade offer: they're looking to acquire D Dylan DeMelo for a 2020 4th and 2020 5th. On one hand, DeMelo is sitting in the minors, so he's expendable overall. Still, I'm feeling like it's both a little early to be making deals (hot start aside, should I be a buyer or a seller?), and I’d probably want more return than that anyway.

10/19 vs Nashville – 3-2 L (SO)
It took extra time and a shootout (and backup Jaroslav Halak between the pipes – Grubauer is still unbeaten), but the Firebirds are finally handed their first loss. Ryan Johansen scored the game winner, with Pekka Rinne stoning Jesper Fast to make it stand up. In regulation, Nick Bonino and the apparently ageless Jarome Iginla scored for Nashville; Riley Nash and Kesler continued their hot streaks for the Birds.

10/20 at Washington – 7-5 W
It’s a barn-burner in the nation’s capital! Ovechkin scored the game’s first goal, but then Atlanta rattled off four straight (Li’l Nacho, Hagelin, Letestu, and Sbruev) to take the lead they would hold the rest of the way. Kesler, Hagelin’s 2nd, and Cogliano round out the goal scoring. Copley and Halak were the merciless shelling victims, with Holtby and Grubauer appearing in relief.

10/22 vs Toronto – 6-1 L
THERE’S the first “real” loss, and it’s an emphatic one. Even with Grubauer back in net, Toronto jumps out to a 2-0 lead in the 1st and pulls away with three more in the 3rd. Five different Leafs get on the board; Craig Smith scored the lone goal for the Firebirds.

10/24 vs Chicago – 5-2 W
Atlanta breaks a 1-1 tie open in the 2nd period with three unanswered goals, and then hang on in the 3rd. Kesler, Christian Djoos, and Sbruev lead the charge in the 2nd, with Craig Smith creating the initial deadlock and Kesler’s second goal providing the exclamation point.

Between games, Chicago offers the same basic deal Philly did – DeMelo for their 2020 4th and 5th. Still no thanks, for the same reasons.

10/27 vs Minnesota – 3-0 W
Kesler in the 1st, Kesler in the 2nd, Jesper Fast in the 3rd, and Grubauer turns away 30 Wild shots for an easy win.

10/30 vs Anaheim – 3-2 L (OT)
A back-and-forth game but Hampus Lindholm sinks the Firebirds at the 2:07 mark of overtime. Nic Kerdiles and Rickard Rakell tally for the Ducks; Djoos and David Perron for the Firebirds.


MONTH: 6-1-2
YEAR-TO-DATE: 6-1-2, 14 points
DIVISION: Tied for 1st (with Toronto), 14 points
CONFERENCE: Tied for 1st (with Toronto), 14 points

GOALS: Kesler 8, Riley Nash 4, Hagelin 3, Smith 3, Sbruev 3
ASSISTS: Petrovic 6, Perron 6, Riley Nash 5, Sbruev 5, Fast 4, Kesler 4, Smith 4
POINTS: Kesler 12, Riley Nash 9, Sbruev 8, Perron 7, Petrovic 7, Smith 7
PLUS-MINUS: Riley Nash 6, Murphy 5, Larsson 4, Petrovic 4, Smith 4

The Birmingham Bandits put up a 5-4 October, with Linus Ullmark sitting for most of the month. Filling in for Ullmark, Nik Rubin went 3-3 with a .893 save percentage and a 2.88 goals against. (Non-contract roster filler Lukas Hafner also got two starts -- for some reason, our rookie Quincey never saw the ice). Jordan Martinook leads the team in both goals (5) and points (9); other top point-getters include RW Beau Bennett (7), Byron Froese (6), Matt Gilroy (non-contract filler, 6), and Nail Yakupov (6 points, all assists)

(Ed: I'll do "Around the League" as a separate post; I'm still playing around with formatting on it.)
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Old 12-06-2018, 12:08 AM   #13
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Re: Third Time's The Charm(?) - Atlanta Firebirds

Really enjoying this! Articles and insights are extremely well written, and every move you make seems to have a real purpose! Great stuff so far.
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Old 12-06-2018, 10:39 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by moose141
Really enjoying this! Articles and insights are extremely well written, and every move you make seems to have a real purpose! Great stuff so far.
Thanks! I don't know that every move has a purpose, but I at least try to keep things somewhat sensible and call myself out when I'm doing something just because I like a guy in real life or something.

You'll note that I have a fondness that sometimes intrudes for Pens, ex-Pens, guys who killed the Pens memorably in the playoffs (see also: Grabner, Michael), and have a general fetish for speed -- can't go wrong having the fastest guys on the ice at any given time.
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Old 12-06-2018, 11:17 AM   #15
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October 2018: Around The League

The season begins to take shape. Washington and Vegas come out of the gates suffering Cup hangovers, joining Ottawa, Minnesota, and Philly at the bottom of the standings. Toronto, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles stake early claims to division leads, but it's early yet. The upstart expansion team, the Atlanta Firebirds are doing surprisingly well, tied for 1st-place in the Atlantic with Toronto.



For goalie rate stats, I chose a minimum threshold of 180 shots as (20 X GP), since I didn't see an "official" criteria like baseball does for batting average and ERA. I've since found that hockey-reference.com uses .3125 of team's games played, so I'll switch to that for future leaderboards.


I forgot to look, but I don't think there are any notable rookie goaltenders to keep track of. As a presentation thing, I might also add draft position for the rookies -- be cool to see if some 3rd-rounder is lapping the field.

Mostly small stuff, but a couple of high-profile goalies on the shelf -- Montreal's Carey Price and Washington's Braden Holtby are both out until close to the new year. And Vegas' Marc-Andre Fleury just went down and is being evaluated. Stamkos (TB) and Giroux (PHI) are both out, but on short-duration injuries, and are due back soon.

(oops... these didn't sync to Box, so I'll have to get full details when I'm on my other computer)

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Old 12-13-2018, 01:13 PM   #16
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November 2018: Firebirds Keep The Hot Start Rolling, Still Tied For 1st

OK, so I missed October 31st. Oops. So "November 2018, Plus One Game".

One lineup change as we head into a new month. The 3rd line feels a little stagnant, so I decided to switch out Mark Letestu in favor of Darren Helm to see if that sparks some offense from that line.

10/31 at Buffalo – 2-1 W (SO)
Tyler Pitlick is the hero of Halloween, scoring the lone goal in regulation and the game-winner in the shootout. Casey Mittelstadt scored the lone goal for the Sabres.

11/2 at Florida – 3-1 W
Pitlick is the hot hand again, opening the scoring at 12:59 of the 1st period. Ryan Kesler scores later in the 1st, and Nikolai Sbruev adds a goal in the second before the Panthers break through for their lone goal of the game. The lone down note of the game was losing top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson to injury – he has a mild concussion and should only miss a couple games.

(OK, when the computer adjusted lines to accommodate Larsson’s injury, it also changed around my forward lines a little too. I’ll sort that out later when Larsson comes back.)

11/5 vs Calgary – 4-3 L
An amazing comeback falls short in the closing seconds. Calgary methodically builds a 4-1 lead going into the final minutes. Then with 54 seconds left, Kesler gets his 10th goal of the season... makes the score look a little closer, right? But then Jesper Fast brings the puck down after the face-off and buries a perfect slapper and it’s 4-3 with about 30 seconds. Calgary controls the puck and starts winding down the last bit of clock, but in a heart-stopping “so close” moment, a puck pops loose between the defensemen and Mark Letestu reaches it before either Calgary player… in on net… no, can’t get a good shot away, and the final siren sounds.

11/6 vs New York Rangers – 2-1 W
Speaking of wild finishes, another exciting ending, with a better outcome this time. With 46 seconds, Pavel Buchnevich beats Jaroslav Halak from the right circle to tie the game at 1-1, but with three ticks left before overtime, Nikolai Sbruev scores the game-winner. David Perron scored the other Atlanta goal, all the way back in the 1st period.

11/9 vs San Jose – 2-1 W (OT)
First bit of news: Adam Larsson returns to the lineup. Sbruev and San Jose’s Timo Meier trade goals in the first period, and then things go quiet for the rest of regulation. But then early in overtime, Adam Lowry hammers one past Martin Jones for an overtime win.

11/10 vs Pittsburgh – 4-1 L
The Pens handle the Firebirds quite handily, though the scoring came from unlikely sources. Jamie Oleksiak, Paul Byron, Zach Aston-Reese, and Derrick Brassard all score. The Big Three? Mostly silent – Malkin had an assist, but Crosby and Kessel were held off the scoring sheet.

11/13 vs Detroit – 2-1 W
Atlanta comes through with another low-scoring win. Gustav Nyquist and Andrew Cogliano trade goals in the first period, but the contest isn’t decided until Riley Nash scores on the power play halfway through the third.

The CPU decides to bring the Darren Helm experiment to a close by scratching him; since he’s been held without a point in four games, I won’t argue. While checking that out, I noticed Alex Petrovic has a playable arm bruise and Mirco Mueller is out a few days with a sore shoulder.
Also, oh hey look… Detroit offers me the same DeMelo package everyone else is offering (only a 6th instead of a 5th as the second pick.) Noooope. Though I might look at DeMelo deals in a little bit here to try to shake up the bottom forward lines a little.

11/16 at Arizona – 7-6 W (SO)
The first game of an extended road trip almost slips away from the Firebirds in regulation, as the Birds blow a lead in regulation but salvage it in the shootout. Coyotes score twice in the last five minutes (Jakob Chychrun and Derek Stepan) to tie the game 6-6. Overtime passes uneventfully, but then Craig Smith scores in the shootout (his third of the game, but not a “real” hat trick) to salvage the win for the visiting Firebirds.

11/18 at Boston – 4-0 W
Easy sailing in Boston as the Bruins only muster 18 shots on net. Both Nashes, Craig Smith, Jesper Fast score for the Firebirds.

Down in the minors, noticed that Ullmark’s back spasms have flared up again. It’s a playable injury, but it is possible this guy’s just going to be an ongoing health concern?

11/20 at New Jersey – 2-0 L
This time, it’s the Firebirds’ turn to go silent on the scoring sheet. Taylor Hall and Pavel Zacha score goals while the Firebirds can’t solve Cory Schneider despite throwing a respectable 32 shots at him.

11/22 at St. Louis – 4-3 L
It’s Thanksgiving Day, but the Blues have to be thankful for Vladimir Tarasenko in handing Atlanta its first back-to-back losses of the year. Tarasenko scored his second goal of the game with 5:32 remaining to break a 3-3 tie and send Blues’ fans home to their turkey dinners in a good mood.

11/23 vs Tampa Bay – 6-5 W (OT)
Atlanta returns to home ice with a wild one. The ‘Birds break out to a 2-0 lead before Tampa comes roaring back with 3 unanswered goals to take the lead. The Firebirds come back and tie the game in the 3rd, and then Adam Lowry appears to break their backs with a goal with 1:07 left. But Leo Komarov answers seconds later to restore the tie and send the game to overtime. But guess what – Adam Lowry must’ve really wanted that game-winner, scoring again at 3:16 of overtime.

Detroit makes another offer on DeMelo that actually gets worse than the last one – now they want us to give up two picks (2020 4th, 2019 4th) with DeMelo to get a 3rd and a 5th in 2020. Ummmm… that’s a hard pass. Though I'm starting to feel like maybe I missed the sweet spot on making a deal before the trading deadline, since the offers are heading the wrong direction.

11/25 vs Las Vegas – 3-2 L (OT)
The Recent Expansion Bowl goes to the Vegas Golden Knights in a game that slipped away late. Shea Theodore scored on a screened shot with 31 seconds to tie the game and send it to overtime, and then after the Firebirds held action in the Vegas end for most of extra time, the Knights counter-attacked and Erik Haula scored the game-winner with 1:17 left.

We got a call from our scouts saying it’s going to be a good year for rookies, but there’s still way too much gray on the scouting reports to say for sure. Besides, if we’re playing this well all year, we’re not exactly going to have the pick of the crop.

11/27 at Los Angeles – 2-1 W (SO)
Another overtime game, but this one comes out better for the Firebirds, as Craig Smith scores the winner in the shootout. Neither goalie with a superhuman workload – 29 shots for the ‘Birds, 27 for the Kings.

Trade offer: Olofsson and a 2020 5th to Toronto for a 2019 4th. Not crazy about the return AND not sure I should help my closest division rival.

11/29 vs New York Islanders – 5-2 L
Maybe they were jet-lagged from the LA trip, but the Firebirds sleepwalk through the first two periods and end up down 4-0 before they get their offense on track, and two 3rd-period goals isn’t quite enough to make it interesting.


MONTH: 9-5-1
YEAR-TO-DATE: 15-6-3, 33 points
DIVISION: Tied for 1st (with Toronto AND Boston), 33 points
CONFERENCE: Tied for 2nd-4th (with Toronto AND Boston), 33 points

GOALS: Kesler 12, Sbruev 8, Riley Nash 7, Smith 6, Cogliano 5, Fast 5
ASSISTS: Perron 13, Kesler 12, Riley Nash 12, Petrovic 12, Murphy 11
POINTS: Kesler 24, Riley Nash 19, Perron 17, Sbruev 16, Smith 16
PLUS-MINUS: Murphy 9, Petrovic 8, Kesler 7, Riley Nash 7, Smith 6

The Birmingham Bandits (12-7-4 for 28 points) remain in the middle of the pack, above .500 but still only 5th in their division. Linus Ullmark is great when he plays (5-0-1, 0.97 GAA, .960 save percentage) but keeping him healthy has been a chore. LW Jordan Martinook continues to push for promotion with team highs in goals (10) and points (8). Byron Froese, Nail Yakupov, and Beau Bennett remain near the top of the leaderboards, but two new players are making their mark – Dominik Simon has surged to 9 goals and 4 assists; defenseman Erik Gustafsson, mostly signed as a spare body, now has 5 goals and 9 assists.

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