Albany Week in Review #1
Another season starts. With leafs falling off the trees, it must finally be time, once again, for hockey. The Albany River Rats kicked off their tenth season, in respectable fashion, with a tie (2-2) against Rochester. Though it was a road game on hostile ice (at least wins-wise, the Rats have not won in over three years in Rochester), the effort was quite respectable.
In their inaugural game under the official leadership of Dennis (“Red”) Gendron (he had been “acting coach” in 1998 when John Cunniff was coaching the Olympians in Nagano), there were many positives even aside from the point in the standings for the tie. To begin with, “toughness” returned, even if the Amerks won two of the three fights. (Rob Skrlac of Albany handily took down Sean McMorrow of Rochester, though Jason Lehoux of the Rats lost twice, once by decision to Ryan Jorde, later by a “knockout” blow from Andrew Peters.)
However, the tone of the play, and the willingness of teammates to stand up for each other and the team, was a pleasant improvement from last-year’s River Rats. Under the coaching of Bobby Carpenter (now an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils), fights were discouraged and players thought to be racking up too many penalty minutes found themselves benched, regardless of whether the rough stuff was justified. The result, for much of last season, is that opponents took the River Rats for granted. Literally, they got pushed around. All too often, they never pushed back.
No more. In an exhibition game two weeks ago against Worcester, an IceCat (Mark Rycroft) ambushed captain Ken Sutton from behind. In jumps who else but a relative small, non-fighting defenseman, Ray Giroux. Though Giroux was penalized four minutes to two for the IceCat, coach Red Gendron praised Giroux for sticking up for Sutton. That not only never happened last season, but if anyone so much as got a “marginal” penalty, disciplinarian Carpenter benched the player or glued him to the pine for part or all of a game.
Gendron by no means is encouraging undisciplined play. In fact, after the second of two regular season games in which referee Craig Spada called a large number of penalties, the River Rats’ coach stated that there is a difference between undisciplined play and that smart physical play will be encouraged, even as retaliatory infractions will be discouraged.
The upshot of that, from the three regular season games to date, is that there is a vast difference in coaching style between Red Gendron and Bob Carpenter. Case in point is game number two, when the Rats blew a lead against the St. John’s Maple Leafs and came out on the losing side of a 7-3 tilt. After an excellent first period, in which veteran winger Joe Hulbig’s pair of goals staked the Rats to a 2-1 lead, Albany collapsed completely in the second period. They surrendered five goals over a six-minute span. Significantly, despite some mediocre defensive play in front of goaltender Ari Ahonen (pulled after the Leafs’ onslaught), coach Red Gendron took full responsibility for the loss. He accepted blame himself and stated that the team’s lack of preparedness was his fault.
That was a shock to Albany fans, who could not remember any similar acceptance of responsibility by Bob Carpenter. Of course, a few games do not a season make, and only time will tell how effective Gendron is as bench boss.
Veteran leadership made the difference and got the River Rats their first win on the season, as well as Gendron’s first victory as “coach.” (He had run up a 9-1 record as acting coach several years back.) Thanks to a pair of goals from Joe Hulbig, a goal and three assists from Craig Darby, and three assists and an overtime-game-winning goal by Ray Giroux, the Rats and their fans savored a 4-3 O.T. win on Monday against the Norfolk Admirals.
Once again, the Rats got first goal of the evening, running to three straight contests that accomplishment. However, a defensive letdown enabled Norfolk to tie the game in the third period. A lengthy two-man short-handed situation put the Rats at risk of losing along the lines of countless “lost leads” last year. This time, though, excellent penalty kill and an explosive extra-session effort spelled the difference. Albany fired a remarkable eleven shots on goal in the extra session (to none for the Admirals), and won it with two minutes to go when Ray Giroux put in his own rebound.
The Rats hope that they can keep on a roll on a road trip where they visit Norfolk (they have never won at the scope, with an 0-4 record in two season) and the new “Giant Arena” in Hershey, where they obviously have neither won nor lost.
Though it is far too early for power play statistics to be meaningful, two noticeable differences from last year, at least for the River Rats, are these: first, time of possession in the attack zone seemed to be more than half of the total power play opportunity time, a very pleasant change from last year when the team struggled to get the puck into the attack zone; and second, crisp passing and quick decisions with the puck in the offensive zone. The total number of scoring chances on power plays seemed better, all things considered, per power play as contrasted with last season.
Albany player of the week
Since the AHL official “Player of the Week” voting occurs on Monday, with games played up to Sunday being considered, Craig Darby got cheated out of league honors. He led the league in points (8) with two goals and six assists. His contributions and the Rats’ achievements to date were inseparable. The Rats only scored nine goals over their three-game opening week, with Darby figuring in eight of them.
Others with strong performances this week include defenseman Ray Giroux (1G [a game-winning O.T. tally at that] and 5 assists for 6 points) and Joe Hulbig (4 goals on 9 shots).
Winger Andreas Salomonsson was lost on waivers. The spare forward who can skate, pass and shoot, but who apparently prefers the perimeter to high-traffic zones near the net, was placed on waivers this week. The Washington Capitals claimed him. The result, of freeing up over $500,000 in “one-way” salary, as well as giving the Devils some roster flexibility, is certainly good news to prospect Christian Berglund. Exempt from waiver exposure due to youth, Berglund played last year both in New Jersey and in Albany. He expects to get some call-ups this year.
Turner Stevenson is apparently side-lined again for the Devils, with another knee injury, the severity of which is unknown. Maybe that means the first game in a Devils’ jersey for Steve Guolla, who made the team in camp but has yet to play.
Meanwhile, in Albany, winger Adrian Foster remains sideline, apparently with an abdominal injury. Winger Jiri Bicek suffered a shoulder injury during Monday’s game against Norfolk. Former Hartford Wolf*Pack defenseman, Burke Henry, leveled Bicek with a clean (like Scott Stevens on Eric Lindros) shoulder hit as Bicek skated up ice with his head buried in his skates. Bicek left the ice and did not return. His status is uncertain for the road trip to Norfolk and Hershey.
So, for the week, the Rats have three points in three games. A good start.