~~The playoff schedule is not set yet for the Rochester Americans, but when the do take the ice in post-season play, they will be a group stacked with players who could impact the future.
On Friday night, in a 5-1 blowout win over the Syracuse Crunch, the Amerks looked like full-strength team that could be very dangerous in the playoffs. Just as general manager Tim Murray planned, the Amerks will provide their young players experience and a chance to play big games along side strong veteran leaders like Kevin Porter, Colton Gillies and Mike Zigomanis.
In front of a crowd of just over 9,500 on Fan Appreciation Night, the Amerks' prospects played well enough to make even a cynical Sabres fan believe in the future.
Forward Tim Schaller, who has earned the role of “shutdown forward” scored his ninth goal of the season by sniping the top corner on a rush 7:44 into the first period. For most of the year, he played a grinding role, but lately the 2013 college free agent signee has turned on his offensive game.
“I feel a lot better,” Schaller said. “I feel like I want the puck on my stick now. I'm not afraid to hold it a second longer here and there. I want the puck a lot more now. I feel good out there.”
Schaller, who played his college hockey at Providence, made his offensive presence known in an April 12 game against Toronto in which he scored a hat trick, all in the third period of an important comeback win. He is considered a player with a possible NHL future because of his size, skating and two-way ability.
The usual suspects Luke Adam and Phil Varone both scored in the win, Adam getting his team-leading 29th of the year. Varone had been named Team MVP earlier in the night. Their goals are an every-night occurrence – for forward Nick Deslauriers, scoring a second period goal meant a little bit more.
“Everyone that comes back down, it's a hard adjustment. I've been struggling lately to score goals so it's good to get one here,” he said.
Deslauriers finished the evening with six shots on goal, a team high. He said Sabres head coach Ted Nolan emphasized the importance of helping the Amerks make the playoffs and go deep.
Mikhail Grigorenko has played a sound game since being assigned to the Americans. He registered three shots on goal on Friday night and – more importantly – continued his solid defensive play. In the third period, he knocked a puck loose on a backcheck to create a 2-on-1 rush. The former Sabres top pick missed the shot just wide on the short side.
“The thing that I am most happy with is his consistency,” Cassidy said. “He's had one game where I didn't think he was as good as he needed to be but every other game he has been pretty good. He has been around the puck all the time, not a lot of shortcuts and very detailed.”
The Amerks will go into the playoffs pretty confident in their goalie. Andrey Makarov played his 10th game since being moved up from the ECHL and has posted a .927 save percentage. He stopped 22 of 23 shots against Syracuse.
Makarov will have plenty of support. Rochester's club will send two healthy, top-level prospects in Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk out in front of their goalie along with Chad Ruhwedel, who is recovering from a concussion. Cassidy said he was impressed with Ruhwedel's play in his first game back.
In a bit of odd news, Cassidy responded to questions about Joel Armia's future that were brought up by a recent podcast featuring prominent Finnish sports reporters. They questioned Armia's future - even going so far as to ponder whether he would consider going back home.
“I talked to Joel about it and he said there is nothing to it,” Cassidy said. “Obviously it is a huge adjustment for him coming over this year. We have talked about it before, it is not easy. English is a second language and being away from home for the first time. He never had any talks with wherever that came from. I think that was more their speculation and how they felt the year was going. He says he is perfectly happy.”
In this clip (begins at 8:00 mark), the reporters confidently state that they could see Armia returning to Finland if he does not find success with Buffalo.
From a Finnish translator, here is a synopsis of what is said by sportswriter Tuomas Nyholm of *Urheilusanomat:
-He is homesick
-He does not want to live the “type of life” that goes along with playing on lower lines
-That they could see him returning to Finland if he does not get to play in the NHL (though a timetable is not included)
-Armia's tools are that of an offensive forward, so they are unsure if his skillset translates
-From another journalist on the podcast: “I've heard it's true. On the record he told he's had a tough year, not the kind of role he expected but does not want to give up”
*Urheilusanomat is a sports magazine in Finland that you might liken to The Sporting News or Sports Illustrated. It has been in circulation since 1940 and has a readership of appx. 50,000 according to its Wikipedia page.
Two sources with knowledge of Finnish hockey and said the perception in Armia's home country is that he has not done well with the transition. Armia played several years in the Finnish Elite League with Assat Pori.
Armia sat out sick on Friday, he is expected to be ready to go come playoff time. Playoff hockey may give the coaching staff an idea about whether he can up his intensity a notch.