During the second period of Sunday evening's game between the Rochester Americans and Abbotsford Heat, Amerks forward Matt Ellis did something pretty special. Ellis went toward the boards, fought off two Heat players, gained possession of the puck and slid it to one of his fellow forwards.
The kicker? Ellis didn't have a stick.
“I don't know where he learned that trick,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said after the game.
Just weeks since the Amerks lost their head coach, captain and top goal scorer to Buffalo, it appears the Sabres' farm club has found their identity: Just a bunch of grinders. And Ellis is the grinder to lead all grinders.
The Amerks beat Abbotsford 3-2 in their third game in three days. Rochester walked out of its first three-in-three weekend of the year with five of a possible six points and seventh place in the Western Conference.
“I hope my kids understand when dad's not moving too well getting out of bed,” Ellis said of playing his first three-in-three in several years.
Ellis didn't just fight with opponents along the boards on Sunday. He scored his second goal of the weekend in the first period, both coming from him tipping a puck into the net while being jabbed at by the opponents' defense.
In between periods, with the Amerks protecting a lead, the 31-year-old winger urged his teammates to push through the fatigue of the longest weekend of the year.
“I told the guys in between periods that when you're in a stretch like this the game becomes just as much mental as it does physical,” Ellis said. “Everyone's conditioned, everyone's in good shape this time of year, it's usually more of a mental battle to drive yourself.”
It's pretty obvious that all the good things Ellis' teammates and ex-teammates have had to say about him over the years are true. Those things have also gotten the Amerks back in the right direction after a shakeup that could have taken their season for a nose dive.
“We don't do anything fancy,” said the Amerks' winger. “We create pressure on the forecheck, try to come out of our zone fairly quickly and keep pressure on the other teams.”
With the club now filled with grinders – a total 180 from the Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno pre-lockout team that preferred to win 6-5 – that means the team isn't relying on one or two players to play hero every night. It took a 10-round shootout for the Amerks to beat the Heat on Sunday. The shootout was capped by the Amerks' hardest working defenseman Alex Biega – a guy who has long deserved a moment in the sun.
“It's always fun to score the shootout winner,” Biega said. “That's why you play hockey, to have fun like that.”
The shootout goal was Biega's first since becoming a pro.
“He was hounding me during the entire shootout,” Cassidy said. “I felt really happy for him. There aren't many guys who are going to battle like him. It was our first three-in-three and he's still out there hitting everything that moves. He led our team in hits last month at 5-10, 185-pounds.”
Cassidy stressed the need for strong play out of his fourth line during a three-in-three. Fourth liner Max Legault, a former seventh-round pick, played one of his highest minutes totals of the year including time on ice on the top penalty killing unit and against top Calgary prospect Sven Baertschi.
“I'm not a highlight guy,” the 23-year-old winger said. “Killing penalties is a plus and it's a great role that I have right now in having the chance to help my team that way. It's huge for me, even if people don't notice. Those guys (teammates) they notice the shot blocking and things that don't really show up on paper.”
Legault is in his third year with the Sabres' organization, scoring 52 points in 177 games. For a younger fourth liner who hasn't been in The Show yet, it's exciting for Legualt to be around players like Ellis and Cody McCormick who made a life in the NHL out of a similar role.
“For me, those guys are role models,” Legault said. “I look at them for their game preparation and how they react. They are really committed to their job. It's good to see what they can bring. They've been in the NHL and they know what it takes to get there. Having those guys in the room, it's a real plus.”
Legault isn't the only player picking up tips from the veteran grinders. Rookie Zemgus Girgensons may have led the team in hits on Sunday. He's moved up to the team's second line with Flynn and Porter in the NHL, but is expected to play a strong two-way, physical game.
The Amerks are in a pretty good spot and are, (cliché alert) coming together down the stretch. Sitting in seventh place, just two points out of fifth with 21 games to go and games in hand over teams chasing them, the Amerks may very well be grinding their way to the playoffs.