It isn't often that a team loses its two top scorers and starts winning like crazy. But that's the case with the Rochester Americans.
The Amerks dominated the Toronto Marlies 5-1 at Blue Cross Arena on Friday night. Rochester's win was their sixth in seven games since the lockout came to an end and Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson went back to the Buffalo Sabres.
Of course, they'd be a more talented team with Foligno and Hodgson, but the end of the lockout allowed the cloud of uncertainty to disappear, the motivation of a call-up to return and the Amerks to find solidarity in the lineup.
Both veterans and prospects have benefited greatly. Friday night belonged to Mark Mancari, a proven scorer who had struggled to find the back of the net earlier this season. He netted a hat trick in the win.
“I got to a point of frustration where I had to start from scratch,” Mancari said of his early-season slump. “I owe it to the linemates. Tonight's game was three amazing passes. If I miss those, then I'm mad.”
Mancari's overall game, head coach Ron Rolston said, is better after going through a difficult stretch.
“Early on there was the frustration of coming to a new team and wanting to do well,” Rolston said. “He wanted to lead the way but he wasn't scoring so he focused on his game away from the puck and his work. You know, he blocked a shot tonight on the penalty kill. It's some of those little things that he's working on.”
The Amerks' top two lines have been as strong in this stretch as at any time during Rolston's last two seasons. Mancari is paired with captain Kevin Porter, the team's most consistent player and rookie Kevin Sundher. Porter finished Friday night's game with one goal and two assists and Sundher fed Mancari's second goal with a beautiful hesitation pass.
Sundher was a healthy scratch earlier this season and when he was in the lineup the rookie forward played on the fourth line. Since being paired with Porter and Mancari, he has five points in seven games.
“I've never played with linemates this good,” Sundher said with a grin.
Credit to the Sabres' organization for finding Nick Tarnasky. He had played for the Lightning and spent last year over seas. The veteran forward is now playing on the Amerks' top line with Luke Adam and Brian Flynn and has been terrific. On Friday night he didn't score, but logged 19 minutes of ice time and was strong in every facet of his game.
“This is the most fun I've had coming to the arena in my career,” Tarnasky said.
Adam being back at center has worked wonders for his game, too. He's added a goal and five assists since the lockout's end.
The Amerks, who once appeared to be a fringe playoff team, may now be a serious contender. They're sitting in seventh place in the West, but are only four points away from division leading Abbotsford with three games in hand.
Can this team be really good?
“Yeah, we're a good team,” Mancari said.
His coach was more conservative in his answer to the same question.
“We just have to make sure we're playing the right way from period to period,” Rolston said.
Adam Pardy – Was fantastic again. For his size, he moves so smoothly and makes savvy decisions. A quick poke check turned into a 2-on-1, which turned into a goal. It's hard to understate how much he's meant to the Amerks' blue line.
Brayden McNabb – Was back in 2011-12 form. He finished the game with three assists and was solid in his own end. He's been shaky at times during the first half, but looks like he's re-focused and looking to put pressure on the Sabres to bring him up.
Alex Biega – Is an underrated, smart defenseman who has worked well with McNabb. He goes about his business quietly, but has been scored 18 even-strength points and been the Amerks' most consistent D-man.
Frederick Roy – Is the best 5-foot-7, 160-pound fighter you've ever seen in your life. He won a scrap with Toronto's Kenny Ryan and finished the fight with a powerful right hand hook. After the game, Roy said he was aiming to bring a little energy to his team. He did also apologize for raising both arms in celebration after winning.
David Leggio – Has been on fire lately. He had a .920 save percentage in January and started February by stopping 27 shots in the win. Pardy's presence and McNabb's improvement has made a huge difference in the amount of 2-on-1's coming his way, but Leggio has still been extremely strong in net. He's started every game since Dec. 22.
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc – Has had a tough go of it at times this season, but played one of his better overall games against Toronto. He was solid in his own-zone decision making, which has been an issue all year.
Tim Connolly – Tim Connolly, former Sabre, was in the lineup for the Toronto Marlies. He made very little impact, finishing the night with three shots and a minus-1.