If Buffalo Sabres fans were to make a list of the players on the Rochester Americans they'll be watching the closest this season, right toward the top would be goaltender Matt Hackett and forward Luke Adam.
Hackett because he may eventually succeed Ryan Miller. Adam because of his blazing start in the NHL two seasons ago.
On Friday night, the two intriguing prospects starred in a 4-1 win over the Utica Comets – who were playing their first game as a new AHL franchise.
The Amerks' 23-year-old netminder, acquired last season in a deal that sent Jason Pominville to Minnesota, stopped 30 of 31 shots. He wasn't often under a great deal of pressure, but made several saves that required athleticism and anticipation.
“There was a huge difference in his tracking tonight and his rebound control was excellent,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said.
Hackett's biggest save came on a breakaway by former Sabres farmhand Colin Stuart.
“Last time I didn't make the key saves,” Hackett said referring to the team's 8-1 opening night loss in which he was pulled. “I did that tonight.”
In Adam's case, the roller coaster past two seasons are yet to hit the second bump upward. He caught Buffalo fans' eye by scoring 11 points in his first 11 games playing with top-liners Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. But he went cold and ended up in Rochester thereafter – only playing four games in the NHL in 2012-13.
One of the former AHL Rookie of the Year's struggles had been confidence. He went through the frustration of being sent down and disappointments of not bouncing right back.
Adam scored two goals Friday night, both within a few feet of the net. After a slow first period, he improved his game, working harder away from the puck than he has since his NHL time.
“It's two things,” Cassidy said. “It's his battle level – how much does he have the puck and nobody can get it from him. And two is him playing in front of the other team's net. If he does those two things, he'll go back to the player he was before.”
But his coach says it's more than just his style, that Adam is in a different place mentally now and it's showing up on the ice. Cassidy called him the “best forward on the ice” through two games.
Why the change?
“He's not seeing being here as a demotion, rather an opportunity,” Cassidy said. “His competitive nature has taken off, he's not feeling sorry for himself and he's winning his battles.”
Last season, it took 18 games for Adam to get his third goal. In two games, he has three.
“Coming into training camp, I felt great,” the 24-year-old forward said. “I felt like I was in the best shape I've been and I was ready to get back to where I was.”
Will it sustain? It won't hurt to play with talented winger Jamie Tardif, who scored 30 goals for Providence last season. It won't hurt to feel like there's some room at the NHL level to move up at some point.
Tim Schaller played his first professional game and was terrific in the first period. He is a hard-working, intelligent player who never stops working hard in his own zone. The Hockey East Defensive Player of the Year at Providence showed flashes of why he was given that award. He was on Cassidy's top penalty killing group. Schaller said he's looking forward to learning from captain Matt Ellis.
“Matt's a great leader. What's great about him is he's a great leader on and off the ice. On the ice, he's always in the right spots. I don't think he made one mistake tonight. Off the ice, I sit net to him in the locker room and I'm lucky to sit next to him.”
Brayden McNabb played a fairly strong overall game, especially in his physical game. It's clear McNabb needs more AHL time, however. He's still coming along in his own-zone decision making and skating.
Chad Ruhwedel is a player you might describe as “nifty little...” passer, skater, stick-handler, shooter. Everything is quick and simple. He made a strong impression in Buffalo and may find himself there again after not too long. Ruhwedel isn't in the same boat as McNabb. He's mostly a finished product.
Dan Catenacci had a very strong start to the game, scoring on a giveaway by Utica's goaltender. But his game wasn't all about that goal, he showed a little edge, got to the front of the net and back-checked hard on defense. His size and willingness to go to the front of the net may remind some folks of a Cory Conacher-type player. Catenacci showed the determination to be like that. Size, like C.C., will be an issue