Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
After fits and starts to the season, the Rochester Americans finally got things rolling. Unfortunately for them the Christmas break came along. The Amerks head into the hiatus having won four of five games while outscoring their opponents by a combined 19-10 and their eight team points moved them up to 9th in the Eastern Conference.
"It's too bad that there is a break because the team has been playing very well the last two games," said long-time Amerks broadcaster, Don Stevens. "It's the kind of situation where you're winning and playing that well and you want to keep playing."
As with any team featuring a lot of new faces, plus a new coaching staff with a new system, there were plenty of struggles as the Amerks adjusted to the up-tempo pace favored in the organization. Head coach Randy Cunneyworth, who Stevens said always wanted a speed game, has them skating hard and fast while playing a 200' game. "They've learned to use their speed," said Stevens. "It seems like they're playing a whole lot faster now. Whereas before they were trying to get a little too fancy, now it's hard-nosed, go for the net and do the best you can to get there. It really starting to pay off."
Stevens pointed to the return of third year pro Tim Schaller as a spark.
Schaller was with the Sabres for a long stint before the team sent him to down to Rochester on December 3. After working out some kinks in his first two games, both of them Amerks losses, Schaller sat out the next game, a 4-3 SOL at home vs. the Utica Comets "due to an ailment that has yet to be diagnosed," as reported by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle's Kevin Oklobzija at the time. Oklobzija wrote that Schaller "apparently has been bothered by the problem for an unspecified period of time" with Cunneyworth saying that he'd been "playing through it."
"Exactly what it is," said the coach, "that's unclear."
Schaller came back the next game and according to Stevens was really "starting to light things up." In the five games before the Christmas break he totaled five goals and one assist and was a plus-4. His last goal against Albany was a real doozy as he went in on the Devils goalie with a d-man draped all over him. Schaller managed to get a good shot off with one knee on the ice as he was being hauled down. It was the first of four 1st period goals for the Amerks as they cruised to a 4-1 victory heading into the break.
Another contributor to the success of the Amerks as of late is veteran Patrick Kaleta, who had been out since the first game of the preseason with Buffalo. He last skated in a meaningful game back in April with the parent club. He had an inauspicious season debut on November 27 in front of the home crowd at the Blue Cross Arena and told the media of his return to the ice, "Getting into a game was fun; other than that, horrible."
Kaleta has been eased back into the lineup playing in only six of 10 games, but according to Stevens, he's had a big impact. "His presence is known," said Stevens said of Kaleta. "He's hitting like a Mack truck out there and the opposition needs to keep their heads up when he's on the ice.
"The whole team feels like it's bigger, playing like they're a taller and heavier when he's on the ice."
One player that doesn't need to be too much taller and heavier is 6'3" 210 lb. powerforward, Justin Bailey. Stevens said that Bailey has probably come the furthest this year as he's starting to learn how to use his size and strength as well as his speed. "For a guy his size," said Stevens, "he's got outstanding speed. Now he's going hard to the net and he's getting in front and mixing it up. He's a big boy, that's the way he's got to play, and now he's figuring out how to play that way."
Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com told me the "figuring out" part of the equation involves the winger using the middle of the ice when it's given to him. "He has the power and the wheels," said Baker, "so he has to become more aggressive when given that space. That will come with more experience."
The team itself needs more experience with the new systems in place. They're beginning to really work the fast pace that Cunneyworth wants and it's starting to show up on the scoreboard and in the standings.
More on ironing out inconsistencies and some focus on the defense and goaltending tomorrow. Until then, Happy Christmas Eve.