AIHL playoffs on horizon for Pacific North, Pacific Southwest teams
The American Inline Hockey League (AIHL) features 19 teams on its Elite Division roll call this season – 10 of them based on the West Coast, and seven of them in California.
The league’s championship tournament is scheduled for May 20-22 in Bethpage, N.Y. Representatives from the league’s four geographic regions will be vying to win a national championship.
The Ripon Valley Stars, East Bay Jawz, Nor Cal Red Army, Sonora, Marina Mantas and Oakland Dragons comprise the Pacific North Division. Teams will gather April 16-17 at the Verbero Powerplay Sports Arena in Ripon for championship playoffs to determine which teams will head east to compete in the AIHL Finals.
Divisional play faced off March 13 with a tournament in Ripon, followed by a two-day event March 19-20 at the High Country Sports Arena in Sonora.
Those six teams wrapped up regular-season play April 9 at another tournament in Ripon.
Though the division schedule has been compact, it’s not been short on excitement.
Teams are playing a 15-game regular season schedule. Through 11 games, Ripon Valley had compiled a division-best 10-1 record and .909 winning percentage, followed by East Bay with a 9-2 record and .818 winning percentage.
Marina and Nor Cal were tied with 6-5 records, followed by Sonora at 2-9 and Oakland at 0-11.
All teams qualify for the playoffs, but due to the abbreviated season, the playoff structure is modified. The top two teams in the regular-season standings will meet in a best-of-five series to determine which team advances to the AIHL Elite Division Finals, while the third- and fourth-place teams will meet in another best-of-five series to determine which team advances to the AIHL Minor Tier 1 Finals.
Similarly, the fifth- and sixth-place teams in the regular season standings will meet in a best-of-five series to determine which team advances to the AIHL Minor Tier 2 Finals.
The Valley Stars are a combination of former Ripon Savage players, mixed in with a few former East Bay Jawz players. The team has jelled behind its veteran experience (both inline and ice), according to Tyler Kruenegel, who had collected 11 goals and 18 points in the team’s opening 11 games to rank third in team scoring behind teammates Nic Robinson (16 goals, five assists) and Kyle Kruenegel (five goals, 15 assists).
Modesto’s Kyle Amant, who helped Team USA earn a fifth-place medal at the 2002 IIHF In-Line Hockey World Championships in Nuremberg, Germany, had collected eight goals and seven assists to match teammate Brenton Ratley with 15 points.
Tyler Kruenegel and younger brother Kyle have both won multiple junior hockey championships in the Western States Hockey League with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads.
Tyler Kruenegel said the AIHL offers a chance to play competitive hockey beyond the in-house setting.
“Without it, we’d get to play only a couple weekends of hockey each year (at tournaments such as the NARCh Winternationals and NARCh Finals),” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to play competitive hockey every weekend.”
The Las Vegas Aces hosted the Pacific South/Southwest Division championship playoffs April 16-17 after finishing one point ahead of the San Diego Tron Hosers in the final regular-season standings.
The four teams in the division have made for an interesting mix with two teams from Arizona, one from Las Vegas and one from San Diego. The competition has proven tight, with the top three teams separated by just one point in the standings three-quarters of the way through the season.
The Hosers’ bugaboo this season has been fielding a full squad. San Diego dressed a skeleton crew for the March 19-20 tournament in Las Vegas and paid the price with a 1-4-1 showing.
“We had seven skaters, which is too few when you have six games total in a weekend,” Hosers manager Steve Baldwin explained.
The San Diego team, which had skated to the top of the division standings at midseason, fared better at the final regular-season tournament April 2-3 in Las Vegas by winning four of its six games, including an 11-2 victory against the Arizona Outcasts. But it wasn’t enough to catch the Aces.
Baldwin said he expects the Hosers to field a full lineup for the playoffs.
“If all my top guys show up, we have a very good chance of winning the division playoffs and then going to New York,” he said.
The Aces, Outcasts and Arizona Ghostriders would like to think they have something to say about that, however.
Stefan Demopoulos (pictured) paced the Hosers with 18 goals and 28 points through 18 games to rank behind Las Vegas’s Darren Corsatea, who led the division with 21 goals and 41 points despite playing in just 16 games.
Aces goaltender Brandon Corsatea owned a 2.84 goals-against average and .861 save percentage in 16 appearances – best among the division’s Elite teams.
— Photo & story by Phillip Brents