By Tom Robinson
Special to USAHockey.com
Seven weeks into the North American Hockey League season, the South Division-leading Amarillo Bulls have the best record in the entire NAHL at 12-1-2.
After leaving behind some unfinished business in a deep playoff run during their first season last year, Amarillo coach Dennis Williams is hoping his team is just getting started.
“Nothing is won here in October and November,” Williams said. “It’s a great start. We’ll take our points when we can and we’ll continue to respect our opponents.”
And, they will aim to improve upon their third-place finish in the 2010-11 Robertson Cup, the NAHL playoffs that also serve to determine the USA Hockey Tier II national champion.
“We’re pretty excited about where we’re at, but we know, as a team, that there are things we need to get better at,” Williams said. “We have a good corps of returners that were able to go to the Robertson Cup last year.
“They came back with a chip on their shoulder. They’ve done a real good job being leaders.”
Leadership comes on and off the ice from players like Karl Beckman, a Holy Cross recruit who was an all-rookie team selection last season as well as the co-winner of the NAHL’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Community Service Award. Beckman helped with the Hockey For Health Program, donated his time at the Amarillo Children’s Hospital and tutored students at Tascosa High School.
“He’s a fantastic warrior on the back end,” Williams said of the 20-year-old defenseman. “He runs our one power-play unit and plays about 30 minutes a game for us.
“He’s the most valuable D we have on both sides of the puck.”
Beckman is plus-17 to rank just one behind teammate John Rey as the top two in the NAHL in that category.
Rey, from Turnersville, N.J., and Beckman, from Okemos, Mich., are a pair of defensemen who are among the veterans on the roster.
Brooks Behling, the team’s second-leading scorer behind Swedish import John Gustafsson, joins captain Matt Johnson and Joe Kozlak to give the team a group of tough forwards who know how to get to the net. Kozlak is an assistant captain along with Beckman.
Behling had two goals and two assists Sunday in a 7-1 win over the defending regular-season division champion Topeka RoadRunners to increase the Amarillo winning streak to seven. The 20-year-old from Pittsburgh joined the Bulls in a trade with the Chicago Hitmen midway through last season.
“He’s been a big presence for us,” Williams said. “He’s finding the back of the net.”
Williams said Johnson, a 20-year-old from Clinton Township, Mich., has been a “marked man” early this season after finishing third on the team in scoring last season. Still, he is tied for third on the team with six goals and nine assists.
“He has a good knack for the net,” Williams said. “He’s just a smart hockey player.”
Johnson, Rey and T.J. Sarcona all have 15 points behind Gustafsson’s 21 points and Behling’s 17.
Kozlak, pictured at right, who had 37 points last season, and Beckman are next with 13 points each.
Kozlak recently committed to Army.
“Kozlak is a complete warrior,” Williams said. “We talked about all the goals he scored in two years now for us; probably if you combined them all, they’d add up to about 30 feet out from the goal.
“All his goals are net-front. He scores on tip-ins, screens and rebounds. He goes to those dirty areas, pays the price and gets rewards for it.”
The Bulls have been rewarded for their early effort, but as Williams reminds, there is work yet to be done.
“We have some unfinished business from last year,” he said. “We have 11 or 12 returners back.
“I’m fortunate to have a great group of young guys.”