Amerks vs. Griffins will be broadcast at 7 P.M. on WGR550 and WGR550.com with Paul Hamilton, Brian Koziol, Matthew Coller and Pat Malacaro
The Rochester Americans come into Saturday night's game at First Niagara Center against the Grand Rapids Griffins almost fully healthy and on fire. They have won nine of their last 11 games and are coming off a convincing 4-1 win against the Hershey Bears.
The Griffins are a different kind of animal (pun intended) from Hershey. Grand Rapids is the No. 2 team in the Western Conference at 29-15-2 and have a 10 point standings lead on seventh place Rochester. The Amerks also lost 8-1 on opening night against the Griffins and twice more on the road this year. Detroit's minor league club is not as strong as they were the first time around – on opening night they had two tremendous NHL prospects in Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyqvist in the lineup. They will have forward Tomas Jurco, another top prospect, on Saturday night.
Rochester is not only healthy but is adding Phil Varone and Chad Ruhwedel, who have spent the past few weeks in the NHL. They are only missing one significant part in captain Drew Bagnall. The veteran defenseman has been paired with rookie Rasmus Ristolainen.
Saturday night's game will be a significant test for the Amerks. The Buffalo Sabres' brass is committed to keeping young players in the American Hockey League, which could mean the Amerks will be a contender down the stretch. But if they are going to compete for a Calder Cup, Rochester will have to get by Grand Rapids.
Here are 5 things to watch (or listen) for in tonight's game:
Sabres prospect Matt Hackett was expected to be the Amerks' hands-down No. 1 goalie this year, but backup Nathan Lieuwen has stepped up and taken playing time. Lieuwen has a .924 save percentage and is 10-7-1. Lieuwen is likely to start at First Niagara Center since Hackett got the call against Hershey.
The 22-year-old netminder was drafted by the Sabres in 2011 in the sixth round. He is build in the mold of Ryan Miller at 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. Lieuwen is not as athletic as Hackett, but has improved greatly in his positioning. He is also a mentally tough competitor. Lieuwen has put together some good performances against top teams, including a 34-save shutout of Hamilton on Jan. 11.
Best D Pair in the Minors
Mark Pysyk and Brayden McNabb. You may know them from both being very good in the NHL. Well, now they are dominating in the AHL. Since the two have been back, opponents' shots at the Amerks' goalies have dropped significantly. In a loss to Syracuse, the Crunch got only 17 shots on net. Hershey put just 26 on Hackett on Friday night.
Pysyk is brilliant in his own zone. His skating, stick work and defensive zone exit passes are as good as you will ever see in the AHL. McNabb puts up points with his booming shot and strong passing ability in the offensive zone. Defensively, he's tough along the boards and lays out the occasional huge hit in the neutral zone.
The two have been playing nearly 30 minutes per night and are a major reason for the Amerks' recent success.
Two of the Buffalo Sabres' first-round draft picks, both from Finland, will be on display on Saturday night at First Niagara Center. Joel Armia, the 16th overall pick in 2011, has had his ups and downs as a first-year pro. His stick work and hands are top six, NHL-caliber, but he still has much to improve in his game. Armia has not been able to establish a physical presence despite being 6-foot-3, 190-pounds and does not get to the front of the net as much as he should.
Ristolainen has occasionally looked like he's on a different planet from the AHL players and at other times struggled. The former eighth overall pick wants to carry the much too much sometimes or go for a big hit when he shouldn't. Both of those things are a product of being 18-years-old. His talent level is undeniable.
Luke Adam has been terrific in Rochester this year. He has 20 goals and 14 assists in 31 games and has improved in the areas where he struggled early in his pro career. The former second-round pick is skating harder, playing a more defensively sound game and battling hard to get to the front of the net – where almost all of his goals have come from.
Some people have given up on Adam as a prospect. It is easy to forget that he is 23-years-old. Matt Moulson wasn't an every-night NHL player until he was 26. Some players develop their all-around game later and still become good NHL'ers. That could be the case with Luke.
Grand Rapids has great skill up front. The Amerks have used a “lockdown line” against opponents' top talent over their winning stretch. Tim Schaller, Colton Gillies and Alex Hutchings are in charge of keeping scorers away from the net. Schaller was one of NCAA's best defensive players at Providence before being signed by the Sabres. Gillies is a terrific skater and has NHL time and Hutchings is the Brian Flynn of Rochester – he is a great skater, penalty killer and works hard every shift.