After a road trip through hell
, the Newfoundland Growlers were more than happy to get back home to the Mary Brown’s Centre in St. John’s, even though the first stretch of the February homestand would bring along a new challenge in a season full of off-ice adversity.
For the three-game series against the Reading Royals in the first weekend of February, the team played in an empty arena for the first time, with numerous key members of the team, including their head coach, either injured or in COVID-19 protocol. That combined with the sudden, heartbreaking loss of Chris “Abbo” Abbott
, better known as Buddy the Puffin, was not conducive to a winning atmosphere.
The Growlers dropped all three games to the Royals, extending a season-long losing streak to six games. Facing adversity and coming together as a team to overcome it is a recurring theme in coach Wellwood’s post-game availabilities, which is to be expected given what this team has gone through off the ice since the start of the season.
“Over the last 60 days, bar none, the hardest 60 days I’ve ever had as a player or a coach so far,” he said after exiting COVID protocol “day after day we were getting punched down with something, which I’m actually very happy we got to go through that. I think if you look at the start of our season, you can get into the mindset that it (winning) is too easy. All of a sudden, you go through this adversity and it hardens you and brings you closer as a group.”
Ahead of a five-game series with the Maine Mariners, (four at home, one away to kick off the next road trip,) seven players returned to the lineup, and young center Ryan Chyzowski was reassigned to the team from the Toronto Marlies. Chyzowski would go on to make an immediate impact, scoring the opening goal of the set three minutes into the Feb. 9 game, the first of many for the Growlers as they went on to win all five games against the Mariners and their next two road games as well: first versus Adirondack and then a dose of revenge against Reading.
“We got our team back,” Wellwood said, accurately summing up the team’s recent run of success in just four words.
On a team full of players who are making the most of their opportunities, no player has jumped off the page in recent weeks like Orrin Centazzo. A rookie to professional hockey at the start of the season, playing limited minutes exclusively on the wing, Centazzo has transitioned to center and is now a staple on the top line with Marcus Power and Zach O’Brien. He’s over a point per game with 31 in 29 GP (17 goals, tied for the team lead with O’Brien) and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I think the main thing is his confidence,” Power said of his new center’s evolution. “That’s a big thing in pro hockey, Welly gave him some opportunity to score and show what he can do, he’s taken that and he’s doing real well.”
“He pays so much attention to the details of the game,” said Wellwood “he wants to learn and the center position is a lot more work, you have to work all four corners. He’s been doing a fantastic job with it and we have full trust in him.”
Another player making the most of a big opportunity is Jeremy McKenna. He’s another young player clicking at over a point per game pace (19 points in 18 games) who has earned an expanded role in recent weeks.
“When he first came to us, he wanted to shoot everything all the time,” Wellwood said “now he’s making more high-end plays and getting it back at opportune times to score. It’s almost like karma’s at work.”
And what more can be said about Keith Petruzzelli that hasn’t already been said? He is among the ECHL’s leaders in save percentage (.932) and hasn’t missed a beat coming off a long layoff due to being in COVID protocols with a number of his teammates, he added his 3rd shutout of the season during the latest homestand and, much like his fellow rookie teammate Centazzo, is making a strong case to be considered an AHL full-timer next season.
“It’s just good to get back in the saddle,” Petruzzelli said. “The boys have been making my job pretty easy, blocking a lot of shots and being great on the penalty kill, can’t ask for anything more.”
Not enough can be said about the power of getting fans back in the building. The three games in a wholly empty Mary Brown’s Centre were a surreal experience, one that no one on the team or around them is keen to revisit anytime soon.
“It’s an instant boost,” Wellwood said. “Home ice advantage is the fans adding extra energy.”
“It’s nice to hear some cheers from the fans,” added Zach O’Brien. “You can see how happy people are, especially young kids, to be back out watching hockey again. It’s great to see and we’re looking forward to coming back home.”
The Growlers are now 1st in the North Division once again after faltering slightly over the last month. The team’s record through 39 games is 24-12-3 They will play their next five games on the road, starting Tuesday night with another back-to-back set against the Adirondack Thunder. Following that, they’ll come back north of the border for a weekend three-in-three against the Trois-Rivieres Lions.