Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a lot of people ask me "how have the Springfield Falcons been so good?"
It's a legitimate question. Things have changed out there, for sure, but a lot has remained the same. Brad Larsen was elevated from his assistant coach position to take over as the lead guy, they made some free agent additions over the summer namely captain Ryan Craig), and had some reinforcements arrive via assignment from the Blue Jackets in September.
Larsen told me before training camp started: "Sure, we have a good team on paper. But everybody has a good team this year. The league is stacked with talent."
I'm not saying he downplayed his team's chances for success, but on the other hand, he makes a great point. The American Hockey League is on center stage right now and several top prospects are playing for their affiliates.
On this first day of November, perhaps we can try to answer some of the questions I've been asked.
The Falcons are 5-1-1 through their first seven games and have only trailed twice (!!) in a game -- 1-0 early on opening night vs. St. John's and 2-1 midway through the second period last Saturday night against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. It's almost to the point now that I'm surprised when the Falcons spend a lot of time inside their own blue line.
When I talked to Ryan Johansen earlier this week, he mentioned consistency and structure as two big keys to Springfield's early success. They have great veteran leadership that keeps everyone together and expectations high. They believe in their game plan and their style of play -- which, if you haven't had the chance to witness yet, is up-tempo and aggressive.
Springfield's defense is deep and talented, so much so that an AHL veteran and fan favorite in Greg Amadio hasn't seen regular playing time. As we've discussed, the Falcons blue liners like to "get up and go," wasting little time with the puck before transporting it up the ice to the forwards.
That mentality has allowed the forwards to create a lot of scoring chances in transition and also draw penalties as the opposition is caught off-guard.
Scoring has been fairly balanced. Jonathan Audy-Marchessault leads the way with seven points, Johansen and Cam Atkinson have six apiece and Tim Erixon has been teeing off from the point (17 shots on goal so far).
But, in my mind, one factor stands out (and we heard John Davidson make mention of it last week): the Falcons have done an impeccable job keeping the puck out of their net.
Springfield has allowed just 12 goals in seven games, giving the Falcons a league-best 1.71 goals-against average. They hold the AHL's seventh-best penalty kill (87.0 percent), which has come in handy with the amount of fouls they've committed.
Curtis McElhinney has been one of the under-the-radar comeback stories in the AHL, playing No. 1 minutes a few months removed from major abdominal surgery. The 29-year-old has the sixth-best GAA in the league (1.51) and is tied for the most wins (five) and most shutouts (two).
The Falcons have received contributions from every player that's been in their lineup. Even when Larsen gave McElhinney a night off last weekend, Paul Dainton stepped in and made 36 saves in a shootout loss to Bridgeport -- a game in which Springfield was a bit ragged and fortunate to walk away with a point.
We're only seven games into a 76-game schedule, but Springfield has got the job done exactly how successful clubs do: they've done it together, as a unit, as a team.