Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
While the parent club was busy taking down the Florida Panthers on Saturday night for their ninth win in 12 games, the Rochester Americans were facing the back-end of a home-and-home against a team they've had little success against this season.
To say it's been a brutal stretch for the Rochester Americans would be an understatement. Six losses in a row, 2-8-0-0 in their last ten. Goaltending was erratic, defense inconsistent, and a once potent offense that was at the top of the league at one point in the season had lit the lamp a mere 11 times in last eight games. The team they faced last night, the Hamilton Bulldogs (MTL,) had just beaten them the night before and increased their record to 4-1 vs. the Amerks so far this season.
Crisis? What crisis?
Shall we go on?
Their leading scorers, Phil Varone, Johan Larsson, Luke Adam, Mikhail Grigorenko, Tim Schaller, and Joel Armia totaled four goals in the last eight games.
Armia has been sidelined with an upper-body injury for the last seven games and although one player does not an offense make, the big winger has a tendency to open up the ice for himself and his linemates. He had 15 points (6+9) in 19 games before his injury.
Joining Armia on the injured list are veteran defensemen Drew Bagnall and Nick Petrecki.
Bagnall's been sidelined the last four games while Petrecki has missed the last two. It left head coach Chadd Cassidy without a veteran presence on the blueline. Although his d-corps are gamers, they're very young. The "vets" on the back end are 24 yr. old Chad Ruhwedel and 23 yr. old Matt MacKenzie. Ruhwedel is beginning his second full season while MacKenzie has been bouncing between the AHL and ECHL the over the course of the previous three seasons.
No further evidence needs to be presented of their youth than the plight of Jake McCabe last night. In the first period with the Sabres up 1-0, the rookie was schooled by TJ Hensick at the Buffalo blueline. Hensick lifted a sleeping McCabe's stick on the backcheck and went in 2-on-1 with Drayson Bowman. Bowman buried Hensick's pass top-shelf, blocker side to tie the game. On the second Hamilton goal, McCabe was caught in no-man's land on a weak shot-block attempt. He not only failed to block the shot, he provided a nice little screen.
McCabe, though, would forget the first period and rest of the game he was solid. "Jake's been playing really well," said Cassidy. "we forget sometimes that he's only 21 yrs. old playing in a league with men. He competes hard, he plays hard on the puck in the d-zone, finishes off guys and is difficult to play against.
"[But,] he's still only 21 yrs. old, we [need] to keep that in mind."
Cassidy really doesn't have a "youth problem" per se up front, but with Armia out there was a pretty big void in the skill department. The coach did some juggling in Friday's game by moving Varone from center to the wing and followed through with that on Saturday. On the other wing Larsson with Grigorenko in the middle. Like the Sabres, Cassidy pretty much has himself a one-line offense.
"It's a different group this year," he said. "Last year we had two lines grind it out and skill up top [in the top-six]. Larsson, Grigorenko and Varone, they'll have a lot of rushes through the neutral zone and they'll have a lot of possession time, but really, our other [three] lines get it in deep and get a touch on [the puck]."
With only one skill line right now, Cassidy said "It's more of playing to that identity and an understanding that everybody's got to play a little different. As long as you're playing to your strengths and you're helping you're team out, that's what we need from each guy."
Up and down the lineup the coach got what he needed from his guys. McCabe recovered well from a rough first period. Chad Ruhwedel had a bit of redemption on his game-winner as he'd been foiled on a golden opportunity earlier. Larsson had three assists including a sweet cross-ice feed to Ruhwedel. Makarov was solid in net, coming up big when needed. Adam played out of character and paid the price with two ice packs on after blocking a couple shots.
"We played desperate," he said. "Guys know that it hasn't been good. We've played well enough to be in games and have opportunities to win, but we didn't have that push to win hockey games. We did tonight."
It was the first game of a season-long eight-game homestand. In all they'll be playing 11 out of the next 12 at home before they hit the road for 11 of 12. Having them pull out a gutsy win beats the alternative and after an extremely rough stretch, Cassidy was pretty relieved. "We found something to feel good about," he said.