Saturday, December 26, 2015

Catching up with Don Stevens and the Rochester Americans Pt. 2

Reprinted with permission from

With plenty of new players and new systems in place, it's not surprising the whole Rochester Americans team is trying to figure out things out. Nor is it surprising that they're somewhat streaky. In a piece penned by Kevin Oklobzija who covers the Amerks for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, he called the team the"ultimate in consistent inconsistency."

"The pattern of wins and losses on the Amerks schedule since Halloween," wrote Oklobzija, "is win three, lose four, win one, lose one, win three, lose three, win two, and now going into Friday's home game against the Hartford Wolf Pack it's lose one."

Rochester smoked the Wolf Pack that night 7-1 with seven different Amerks scoring goals. Four of the goals came from defensemen as Matt Donovan, Bobby Sanguinetti, Chad Ruhwedel, and Jerome Leduc scored consecutively to put the Amerks up 4-0. Justin Bailey, Jason Akeson and Jean Dupuy skated the team to a 7-0 lead with all but Dupuy scoring either their second or third goals of the season.

No Amerks player has really stood out in the goals-scoring department as scoring has been by committee to this point in the season. Veteran Phil Varone leads the team with nine goals and the next closest is Jason Akeson with six.

Akeson, who was signed by GM Tim Murray in the off season, is having a solid campaign. He's a former Philadelphia Flyers free agent signee (2011) who had been with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL and scored at least 50 points in every season for the team before coming to Rochester. The 25 yr. old native of Orleans, Ontario brings speed and playmaking ability to the team. "He's also pretty good at sticking his nose in," said long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens. "He's not the biggest guy, but he plays over his size."

With the offense starting to perk up a sketchy defense may just be beginning to solidify as well. Overall their numbers are pretty weak as Rochester has given up 94 goals through 28 games or 3.35 goals allowed per game. But in another case of the Christmas break coming at the wrong time, they've only given up two goals in their last two games. Take out the poor performance against Utica where they allowed five goals and in the other four surrounding it they've allowed five goals in four games (1.25 gaa.)

Stevens looks upon the defense and sees a very good one comprised of solid pairings. There's a mix of veteran players featuring Sanguinetti, Donovan and Colby Robak coupled with some younger players like Ruhwedel and Leduc plus 22 yr. old Brady Austin who's coming along nicely in his second pro season.

Austin is a big, powerful d-man chiming in at 6'4" and 225 lbs. A seventh round pick (193rd) in 2012, Austin spent time skating with former Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov when they were a pair with the London Knights of the OHL. "He's probably our only stay-at-home defenseman, which seems to be his game," said Stevens of Austin. "Although, when he wants to, there will be times when he'll surprise you and just blow right through the defense, bust in on goal and have great scoring opportunities."

After an extremely slow start, the defense is starting to come together, especially on the penalty kill. Stevens pointed out that they haven't allowed a powerplay goal in the last five games. That in-turn has helped the goaltending stabilize as well.

Whether it's the defense learning new systems or the forwards missing their assignments or the goaltenders letting in a softie or two at the wrong time, there's been plenty of inconsistency in net. It was a big reason for the aforementioned "consistent inconsistency."

"We're getting outstanding games from both (goalies) [Nathan] Lieuwen and [Andrey] Makarov," said Stevens, "and then there's nights when it just isn't working very well. We'll go two or three games maybe giving up a goal (or so) a game and then all of a sudden we're giving up four or five goals a game. The biggest thing is that the goaltending has been inconsistent."

It should be noted that before he left for the Buffalo Sabres as a call-up, goaltender Linus Ullmark was 1-2 with a 2.72 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. In two of the three games he was simply outstanding in net even though he came out with a 1-1 record. The time Ullmark has spent with Buffalo while Robin Lehner recovers is invaluable and should serve him and the Amerks well when he's returned to Rochester.

Markarov is 6-5-1 to this point in the season with a 2.95 gaa and a .911 sv % while Lieuwen is 7-5-0 with a 3.31 gaa and a .902 sv %.

The big thing for the Amerks right now is continuing to play at a fast pace. Speed is the name of the game and that's what the organization wants as a platform for success at both the AHL and NHL levels.

With 30 years invested in the broadcast booth for the Amerks, Stevens has seen styles of play come and go and although he's still old-school and somewhat misses the hard, physical game, he see's the speed game as pretty exciting. "That's what the game is now," he said. "For a while it was finesse, and then it was defense and [the trap], then it was size, then smaller players with speed. But I think it's coming down the game right now being all about speed."

GM Murray brought in fast players for a speed game and Rochester head coach Randy Cunneyworth wants his team to play that way and now the Amerks, according to Stevens, "learned to use their speed," said Stevens. "It seems like they're playing a whole lot faster now. It's really starting to pay off."

Merry Christmas everybody.

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