As the Evansville IceMen (29-25-10) battle for a playoff spot in the ECHL's final month, they have just one Columbus Blue Jackets prospect on the roster - rookie defenseman Thomas Larkin, who recently began his third stint with the team this season.
Born in London and raised in Italy, Larkin became the first Italian-trained player ever chosen in the NHL Draft when the Blue Jackets selected him in the fifth round in 2009. The product of Colgate University is now completing the first year of his two-year entry-level contract with Columbus.
Larkin has spent most of his time with AHL Springfield during his rookie campaign, though he has actually played fewer games with the Falcons (18) than the IceMen (25). While in Springfield, he has generally been a healthy scratch or used in a limited role - but that should not be viewed as a poor reflection of his potential.
While in Evansville, Larkin has been a top-pairing blueliner in every sense of the term. He logs big minutes at even-strength, kills penalties, and sometimes quarterbacks the power-play. He brings a physical presence in the defensive zone, and isn't afraid to fight when the situation warrants. And he also contributes on offense, leading all IceMen defensemen at 0.56 points-per-game.
Larkin spent essentially the first two months of the season in Evansville, then was summoned to Springfield in early December. He was briefly returned to the IceMen for about a week in January, but has otherwise been with the Falcons since his initial recall - until last Friday, when the Blue Jackets reassigned him to Evansville again.
The defenseman's return was apparently just what the ailing IceMen needed. Evansville was mired in a 6-16-2 skid overall and had lost 3 straight, all at home. The prolonged slump had dropped the IceMen from 2nd in the Eastern Conference all the way down to 10th, on the outside looking in at the post-season.
To put it mildly, Evansville's playoff hopes were fading fast. But on Friday, the returning Larkin had an assist and was +1 in a 4-3 victory over the Wheeling Nailers, a likely playoff team that had won 5 straight.
Then on Saturday, the red-hot (12-2-1 in their last 15) conference-leading Reading Royals came to Evansville and jumped out to a 3-1 first-period lead. But just 33 seconds after the Royals gained that edge and deflated the throng of 8719, Larkin scored a huge goal - his first of the season - to re-energize the crowd and spark a monstrous comeback for the IceMen. He later added an assist and was again +1 in what turned out to be a 5-3 victory for Evansville.
It was the first time the IceMen had won back-to-back games in over two months, since a 3-game winning streak from January 14-20.
Larkin is now +9 on a team that has a season-long goal differential of -6. In 25 games, he has been a "minus" just 5 times, and he's never been worse than -1.
The IceMen are 15-6-4 (.680) with Larkin in the lineup, and just 14-19-6 (.436) without him.
Evansville is still 10th in the East, and the IceMen now face the daunting task of finishing the regular season with 8 straight road games.
On Friday, one IceMen fan opined on Facebook that Larkin's return was merely "a band-aid on a bullet hole."
Perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, the big blueliner's return will stop the bleeding altogether and help the IceMen finish just well enough to climb back into the ECHL playoffs.
It won't be easy, but you've got to like Evansville's chances just a bit better if Thomas Larkin remains with the IceMen down the stretch.
The current IceMen roster features 3 players who are under AHL contract to Springfield...
• G Mike Clemente: Stats have taken a hit as the IceMen have struggled, particularly in the realm of team defense. Just 3-4-0 in his last 7 starts, with a 3.85 Goals-Against Average and an .878 Save Percentage. On the season, he's 18-15-4 with a 2.71/.906 line. Before Saturday's regular season home finale, Clemente was named Team MVP in a vote conducted by his teammates.
• F Alex Aleardi: Has played 15 games with Evansville since being sent down by Springfield in February. Started a bit slow (3 points in his first 8 games) but has heated up with 10 points in his last 7 games, including a 4-point night (1 goal and 3 assists) in Saturday's comeback victory over Reading. Possesses amazing hands and plenty of raw skill, but sometimes attempts to do too much by himself - eschewing an easy pass in favor of trying to make a more difficult play on his own.
• F Peter Sakaris: Promising rookie season was derailed by a groin injury sustained on January 29. Had 13 points in his last 17 games prior to the injury, but has played only 5 games since. Finally fully healthy again, Sakaris will look to make an impact as the IceMen conclude the regular season on the road. On Saturday, he assisted on the critical Larkin goal that began Evansville's comeback.
Springfield-contracted rookie forward Jeremy Langlois spent most of the season on assignment in Evansville, but was dealt by the Falcons at the AHL trade deadline on March 12.
Langlois finished with 52 points in 49 games for the IceMen, and may still be the team's leading scorer by season's end.
At the time of the trade, he was leading all ECHL rookies in scoring, and had served as IceMen interim captain for 16 games while original captain Josh Beaulieu was on the shelf with a broken foot.
Langlois was traded to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who have thus far kept him in the AHL. In just his third game with Bridgeport on March 16, Langlois was +3 with 2 goals (including the game-winner) and 1 assist, and was named the game's 1st Star.
A GENEROUS MAN(NY)
Longtime NHL netminder Manny Legace, a 2002 Stanley Cup champion and 1994 Olympic silver medalist, began and ended his playing career in the AHL with Springfield. He is still the 20-year old franchise's all-time leader in wins by a goaltender (64).
These days, he works for the Falcons as a goaltending consultant. On March 12, he visited Evansville in an effort to work with Clemente. But that afternoon, Clemente was recalled to Springfield due to a minor injury sustained by Falcons goaltender Jeremy Smith.
No matter. Legace decided to stay in Evansville an extra day, in order to work with IceMen rookie goalie Garrett Bartus. Mind you, Bartus is not Springfield property - he's only under ECHL contract with Evansville. Legace had zero obligation to stick around and tutor Bartus, but he did so anyway.
The following day on March 14, with Clemente still in Springfield, Bartus started for the IceMen against Orlando, a sure playoff team with the #3 offense in the ECHL's Eastern Conference.
The IceMen won 7-1 as Bartus made 35 saves, arguably his second-best game of the season. (His lone shutout came via a 42-save effort on New Year's Eve.)
Suffice to say, the rookie's sparkling performance probably made Manny proud.