If you are a hockey fan of any kind, you have probably been hearing more and more about the importance of puck possession. In the first two games of the Rochester Americans' Best-of-Five series with the Chicago Wolves, the possession winner has controlled play and come away with the win. And whoever can dominate the puck over the next several games will be the one who advances.
In their 3-2 win at Blue Cross Arena Saturday night, the Amerks owned possession for most of the game, starting from the blue line where they received NHL-caliber performances from defenseman Mark Pysyk and Rasmus Ristolainen. They were able to prevent scoring opportunities and move the puck through the neutral zone to create rushes and shots from forwards.
Their performances frustrated the Wolves, especially on offensive zone entries, which forced them to dump the puck in more often. Statistically, however, it is not advantageous to dump the puck because it gives the opponent a chance to make a play with their blue liners. Rochester's puck-moving blue liners – Pysyk, Ristolainen, Chad Ruhwedel and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc – owned he possession after dump-ins.
“With the minutes they log, if those guys play well, the other team's shots go way down,” coach Chadd Cassidy said. “We didn't have that last night and we gave up way too many shots, way too many easy entries into our zone last night. We were way better with that.”
Forwards played a huge role in possession, too. Colton Gillies was particularly good at working below the red line to put pressure on the Wolves' defenseman. He set up the team's second goal by working down low, then finding Ruhwedel in the slot for a wrist shot goal.
“Their strength is their defense and we need to put as much pressure as possible on them and everyone did a great job of that tonight,” Gillies said. “Playoffs is my style of game. Go around, hit guys and make it hard on their players.”
Six forwards ended the night with multiple shots, including four from center Tim Schaller and wingers Nick Deslauriers and Brayden Irwin. Phil Varone and Joel Armia had three a piece. Cassidy said the work by the defenseman “trickled down” to the forwards.
“It is huge when we can keep the puck and keep it out of their forwards' hands,” Pysyk said. “Take the pressure to them and good things are going to happen.”
The best way, numbers wise anyway, to figure out if your team is the possession winner in an AHL game is looking at shots on goal (NHL you would use shot attempts, but the AHL only keeps “On Goal” numbers) when the game is within two goals during the first two periods or tied in the third. By that measure, Rochester out-shot Chicago 23 to 14. The Wolves only managed five shots in the second period.
Veteran Nick Petrecki, who played a key penalty killing role and partnered with Ruhwedel, was impressed by work of the young D-men.
“Those guys are good with the puck, good away from the puck, good stick position, they move their feet – they make us go back there,” Petrecki said of Pysyk, Ristolainen and Ruhwedel. “It is a confidence thing with them back there.”
In the third, Chicago was scrambling and put more pucks on net. They also had two late-game power plays that almost cost the Amerks. One of the Wolves' pain-in-the-neck forwards Keith Aucoin scored on a 5-on-3 to make things interesting. But with 16 seconds left in the game, Varone won a D-zone faceoff and Pysyk went into the corner 1-on-3 and forced a bad pass to put a bow on the game.
Where will the series go from here? If you were betting, you'd guess five games. From a talent standpoint, the teams have shown to be dead even. Both sides have tremendous goaltenders (each had a .927 save percentage during the regular season, though Chicago's Jake Allen played many more games than Andrey Makarov), both have speedy forwards and puck-moving defenseman. So it should come as no surprise that the series is 7-7 in total score.
- Jamie Tardif earned the praise of his coach for leadership and his work in front of the net. Tardif has been out with an injury and said he was a “little rusty.” His return is big for the Amerks.
- Joel Armia has played with intensity in the first two games. He controlled the puck, got shots on goal and continued to battle with St. Louis prospect Dmitrij Jaskin after whistles and away from plays.
- Mikhail Grigorenko was not a factor in the outcome, but again played a decent away-from-the-puck game, knocking pucks loose from sticks along the boards. However, the Amerks would probably like to see a little more offense since he is playing with top scorer Luke Adam.
-Speaking of Adam, he does one thing exceptionally and he did it on Saturday – score goals. He has a knack for getting to the front of the net and putting the puck in. It reminds you of Matt Moulson – and he may end up following a similar career path.
-Andrey Makarov is facing a bunch of darn good scorers and was strong again in Game 2, stopping 26 of 28.
- Credit where it is due to Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, who played a strong game subbing in for injured Matt MacKenzie. He has great puck skills and used them on Dzone exit passes, one of which created a semi-breakaway for Kevin Porter