The Amerks hit the road again for the start of a busy almost second half of the season. They’ll be playing three games in three nights starting tonight against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and then Binghamton Senators and then closing out the weekend against the Hershey Bears on Sunday. The team will play every Friday and Saturday night until April 6th which is the second to last weekend of the season. This will also be one of five sets of three games in three nights to finish the season.
Last weekend the Amerks ended the year one point behind the Toronto Marlies for first place in the division and here we are a week later and the Amerks are now six points behind them and ninth place in the conference. It’s not October or November anymore, this is the time of season when points start to have a lot more meaning when it comes to the playoffs. There are 43 games remaining and there’s only four points separating the Amerks from where they are in ninth place to the Hamilton Bulldogs in 13th.
The Rochester Americans have been maturing as the season goes on which is great instead of a quick rise and then downfall like we saw happen to the 2009/2010 team. They haven’t been rising in the standings as quick as they’d like but they’re playing above .500 hockey and have found ways to beat two of the top teams in the league, the Oklahoma City Barons and Houston Aeros. They’ll be tested again this weekend these Eastern Conference teams.
“A lot of guys have been put into those positions because what happened in the first half,” Rolston said. “They were basically forced to mature quicker probably than they would’ve liked or we would’ve liked in terms of the the situations they were in on the ice and the opportunities that they’re getting.”
What happened in the first three months of the season was a number of call ups and the lack of additional signings which put players in starting positions who normally would have had to battled it for an AHL position. The team has come together as a team with some great chemistry and has not pointed any losses at the lineup on injuries or call ups but instead they’ve dealt with things and found ways to win.
At practice on Thursday the team spent the whole time working on special teams going full speed. Playing against each other is never the same as playing against another team but they didn’t hold anything back, including taking shots off the shins to block them. I asked Ron Rolston about the special teams practice and he said, “It’s been pretty good lately and we just want to stay on top of it. It’s been part of our success in our last stretch of games.”
This was also the first full week of practice they’ve been able to get in since the first full week of December. Rolston said, “We’ve had a hard travel month in December but it was good to have some time this week to work on things.”
The Amerks have 18 losses on the season when combining regulation, overtime and the shootout. In 11 of those losses the games have been decided by one goal. You could even add a 12th game onto that when Albany scored an empty netter to make it a two goal loss. That’s an indication the games are close and this team isn’t getting tossed around.
“Until lately we haven’t scored a lot of goals so we’re in a lot of right games, we’ve been pretty good defensively,” Rolston said when I asked about the one goal losses. “In a lot of tight games, that’s just a part of your team maturing being able to handle those situations and finish games off.”
Drew MacIntyre and David Leggio will have to start playing better than they have been. Both goalies have played in 17 games but the one problem they’re facing is allowing goals off of what could be seen as less than stellar shots. MacIntyre has been considered one of the top goalies in the American Hockey League but has struggled at times. They’re goalies that teams know they can score on instead of being fearful of.
Shaone Morrisonn will be back in the lineup this weekend which will help on the defensive front. He was out for the past four games with an undisclosed injury. Joe Finley just hasn’t seemed to play the same without being on the same line as Morrisonn so those two should be game changers.
Corey Tropp is also back in the lineup after some time with the Buffalo Sabres and then recovering from a concussion. Tropp played in the first 12 games of the season for the Amerks scoring three goals and four assists. It’ll be interesting to see who he’ll be paired with, it’s almost as if he’s a new player.
The Penguins will be without Colin McDonald who is their leader in points with eight goals and 20 assists in 33 games. He was called up today by Pittsburgh so that’s one offensive threat out of the way.
Look at some statistics, it’s going to be important for the Amerks to score early and hold on to that lead. That’s stating the obvious. The Pens are 10-0-1-1 when leading after one period and 14-1-1-0 when leading after two periods. The Amerks are 7-4-1-0 when leading after one and 8-0-1-0 when leading after two periods. The Penguins don’t seem to be playing too well at home with a home record of 5-8-1-2 which is similar to the Amerks road record of 5-8-4-0 so when it comes to the advantage it’s up in the air. The Amerks will be rested though. They traveled by bus on Thursday to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton where they were able to eat, relax and spend a night in a hotel before having a morning skate today.
I’m going to try and tune into the game to provide updates on Twitter @LetsGoAmerks and of course follow @AmerksHockey. For updates from the Pens you can follow Jonathan Bombulie on Twitter @CVBombulie, he’s the beat writer for the team. You can also follow Jason Iacona @nafsnep who writes about the team on http://ChirpsFromCenterIce.com.