When the Rochester Americans went up 2-0 in the first period over the league's worst team, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the talented 'Merks would run away with a win. But not only did they not blow out the Utica Comets, they blew the two-goal lead and lost 3-2 in regulation.
And to make matters worse, they did so in front of Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan.
(Some quick notes on that: LaFontaine said he had interviewed a candidate for GM and that some new names had been thrown into the hat that were not on the original list. Also Alex Sulzer may be headed to Buffalo. Rob Sanderson of WHTK in Rochester reported seeing the Amerks' veteran D-man not boarding the team bus to Utica.)
The Amerks scored two goals in the first seven minutes, starting with a Dan Catenacci wrist shot goal on a pretty pass from veteran Mike Zigomanis – who has been the Amerks' best all-around player so far. Catenacci had been struggling to get pucks to the net, going scoreless in 12 straight games.
Rochester's second goal came from defenseman Chad Ruhwedel on the power play. He was set up on a tap pass from Johan Larsson, who picked up two assists in the game.
With those two points, he doubled his total from his 17 games in Buffalo.
“I'm playing more I think,” Larsson said. “I was playing under 10 minutes and it was hard to create. And when I come down here I play power play. So I think it's one thing they expect from me – to put up numbers.”
The Comets opened up the second period with a goal from prospect Alexandre Grenier. Powerful forward Darren Archibald won a battle along the wall and found Grenier on a pass to the front of the net. He put the puck past goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, who stopped 28 of 31 shots in the loss.
Several minutes later, a Catenacci slashing penalty set up a goal for defenseman Peter Mullen to tie the game.
The Amerks tried to turn the heat back up in the third, but gave up the period's only goal to veteran Pascal Pelletier. That was all Utica needed to lock down the win.
In the loss, the Sabres' farm club showed flashes of its talent – which includes a group of solid veterans and two first-round picks in Joel Armia and Rasmus Ristolainen. Certainly more than Utica fielded for the night's events.
But there have been so many changes of late, it's hard to figure who will even be in the lineup, much less gain any sort identity as a team.
“In this league, you have to play the same game for 60 minutes,” veteran D-man Drew Bagnall said. “We have to play to our identity, which is getting pucks out and getting pucks in and grinding teams down. And we need that urgency, whether it be power play, penalty kill or whatever the situation.”
Many teams go through shakeups, but few see their two best players sent up for two rookies and few are over the veteran limit to the point they have to sit their captain. It may take awhile for things to sort themselves out and for the team to come together.
Rasmus Ristolainen led the Amerks in shots with four. He flashed the sort of skill that led to him being selected in the first round. The rookie has the skating and stick handling ability to take the puck from blue line to blue line and enter the offensive zone all by himself. Opponents back off because of his speed and he's able to make a pass or fire the puck at the netminder.
This maneuver is pretty to watch, but not always exactly what is needed.
“He has to simplify a little bit,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “He put himself in some tough situations where he's playing too many hard minutes where guys are draped all over him on the forecheck where he's carrying the puck out of the zone. If he just moves it, backs the play up and reads to see if the forwards are going to get entry into the zone.”
His partner Drew Bagnall, one of the brighter players you'll bump into, agrees.
“What you can learn down here is the details,” Bagnall said. “When to use that, when to lead the rush, when to join the rush. As a younger player, he'll play 25 to 30 minutes and he'll get so many touches with the puck and his confidence will improve and improve.”
Joel Armia had an assist. He's been up and down. For every rocket wrist shot or pick pocket, there's a bad pass or turnover. There's certainly an age aspect to that. It will be interesting to see if he improves consistency in his play over the year.