Instability is the name of the game in the American Hockey League, but this season has been especially rocky. The lockout kept everyone on edge as the world waited for a resolution. But now that the NHL season has started and all the pieces have fallen into place roster wise, AHLers can focus simply on the task at hand.
The end of the lockout has worked wonders for the Rochester Amerks, who have won four of five games since the NHL announced it had a deal in place to start the 48-game season, including a 4-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins on Friday night. They now head into the All-Star break in seventh place in the Western Conference.
“That uncertainty is over,” said goalie David Leggio, who stopped 23 of 25 shots on Friday. “We can just focus a little bit more."
The end of uncertainty has brought with it new roles for several Amerks. After Kevin Sundher's goal on Friday night, the rookie has now scored four points in five games since the exit of Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno. He only had six points in 22 games prior to the lockout's end. As a second line winger now, Sundher has been paired with veterans Mark Mancari and Kevin Porter. Pre-lockout he was on the fourth line.
Hodgson's return to Buffalo has also meant more ice time for center Phil Varone, who has four points in the last five games. Varone led the team in scoring last season, but scored just 12 points in 32 games before Hodgson moved back to the NHL.
“Guys have kind of settled in to where they are at for now,” head coach Ron Rolston said. “We were in a stretch there, even when the lockout was going, where they had the talks and everyone got excited it was going to start about three different times. Then once it did start, it was about how camps were going to go and how many guys were going to be taken.
“There's a lot of emotions there and a lot of uncertainty. I think now guys have settled back into just helping this team have success. If they do that they'll get opportunities.”
Defenseman Adam Pardy, who was assigned to the Amerks after being waived by the Sabres, has made an enormous difference on the defensive end. Against the Baby Pens, the Amerks held onto their two-goal lead in the third period – something they've struggled with throughout the season.
“We've been trying to focus on situations where we have leads,” Rolston said. “We're doing a better job of taking care of leads and not playing comfortable and taking care of the puck.”
Defensive stability makes life easier for Leggio, who has started 34 of the team's 40 games. The Amerks' goalie, who is 21-12-1 with a .912 save percentage, attributes his experience to being able to handle the difficult load.
“I pride myself on my work ethic,” Leggio said. “As I've gotten older and wiser, I've learned you have to pick your spots. When to rest, when to get off the ice, when to stay on the ice, when to lift and all that stuff. When you're playing a lot of games, you have to monitor yourself. I'm the type of guy who has to reel it back more than push forward. That's been something I've had to learn as I've gotten older.”
Don't be surprised if Leggio is the team MVP two seasons in a row. It's hard to debate he's the first half MVP.
Mark Pysyk has been through his share of ups and downs during the first half. He was a healthy scratch once, he's played on the third pairing, first pairing, he's played power play, penalty kill and everything in between.
On Friday night, the 21-year-old rookie defenseman scored two points giving him 13 in 37 games. Now that he's gotten comfortable with the size and the speed of the AHL, Pysyk said like to start adding more to the offensive side. The Amerks could use it, especially with the team's main scorer T.J. Brennan now in the NHL.
“I still have to make sure I'm not taking anything away from my defensive game,” Pysyk said. “I have to play good defense and hopefully I'll be rewarded up front.”
Most hockey people say it's more difficult for a young defenseman to make the adjustment quickly than it is for forwards. Pysyk talked about the difference:
“It's a number of things,” Pysyk said. “The size and speed of guys coming down on defenseman, as a forward you play a different style you can get away with being smaller and quicker, but if you're good enough, you'll make the NHL.”
Mark Mancari and Kevin Porter – Continue to be the Amerks' rock on offense. They consistently create chances and play hard. Both set a strong example for younger players.
Brian Flynn – Scored a “lucky” goal. But when a guy is always around the net, it's hard to call him lucky. That's the Brian Flynn story. He's up to 29 points in 37 games.
Nick Tarnasky – Should probably be playing 4th line in the NHL somewhere. He's a strong enough offensive player to be on the top six in the AHL and is super tough.
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc – Was back in the lineup due to an injury to Drew Schiestel. He's still struggling to pick up the AHL game. Rolston sort of dodged a direct question about his play after the game.
Luke Adam – Actually made a few nice plays in his own zone and created a chance or two. Has been strong while back at center. No surprise.
Zemgus Girgensons – Remains out with a concussion. No word on when he'll be back. It could be awhile, which is unfortunate because he was ready to take the next step.