Valencia flying high with sights set on WSHL top seed
As the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) season enters the stretch run, the first-place Valencia Flyers are aiming to prove the adage true that defense wins championships.
Backed by an MVP-caliber season from rookie goaltender Linus Ryttar and a lockdown defensive unit that had allowed only 91 goals through 49 games, Flyers general manager Scott Allegrini is understandably pleased with the way the season has unfolded to date.
“You recruit and go through the whole process, and on paper in September it looks great, but it doesn’t always work the way you want it to,” said Allegrini. “We’ve had some pleasant surprises. You always want to get players in who are going to buy into what you’re selling as an organization. We try to build our teams around speed and smart players, but ultimately, you need everyone to buy in and I think that’s a big reason for our success this season.”
Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt when you can unearth a gem like Ryttar, the 19-year-old from Stockholm who fashioned a 28-5-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage heading into March.
“We knew Linus was good, but we didn’t know we were going to get this out of him,” said Allegrini. “His vision is amazing – it’s unbelievable how he can track a puck – and positionally, he’s just so sound. But maybe the best part about Linus is that he just cannot be rattled. It doesn’t matter if teams run him, or if the referee calls a borderline goal, the kid is exactly the same all the time.”
But it’s not just Ryttar’s play that has the Flyers allowing a hair over two goals per game, good for second in the WSHL behind only the Idaho Jr. Steelheads. It’s a team-wide focus on defense that has Valencia smothering opponents, which is something Allegrini says starts with keeping things simple.
“We want smart, consistent play from our defensemen, which means keeping guys to the outside with good sticks,” said Allegrini. “We don’t need these guys to make big, booming hits at the blue line. We need our defensemen to keep guys to the outside.
“We’ll give up 100 shots a game from outside the dots because we know our goalies are going to make that stop.”
With wins in 22 of their first 25 road games this season, Valencia also has the unique distinction of being a team that performs better – or just as well in the case of a team that’s 42-7-0 – on the road than at home, a common theme with past Flyers teams as well.
“If you look at us over our history, we’re typically a better road team than we are a home team,” said Allegrini. “The only thing I can chalk it up to is that on the road you control every aspect of the players and their day. When they go to bed, when they wake up, when and where they are eating – there’s an element of control you don’t have at home. You can’t drive around to 25 different houses and make sure they’re not eating Jack in the Box when we’re at home.
“The only focus when you’re on the road is to play.”
When you combine top-flight goaltending, a stingy defense, a propensity to win on the road and one of the least-penalized teams in the WSHL – the Flyers had the fifth-fewest penalty minutes in the league at the start of February – all signs point to a long playoff run to the Thorne Cup.
“To set ourselves up to have the possibility to lock down home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs is huge,” said Allegrini, whose club entered February tied with Oklahoma City for the league’s top record. “It’s an exciting time, but it’s also the first time we’re going in with the expectation to go really deep into the playoffs. It’s a different situation for us this year, but you just really want to get out there and get going.
“I wish it would start tomorrow.”
— John B. Spigott