For the first time in nearly five years, the Albany River Rats are a competitive team in the AHL.
After parting ways with the Lowell Lock Monsters prior to this season, the River Rats are now the team the Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche prospects call home, and the franchise is reaping the benefits of the new talent.
The Rats, with a record of 13-11-2-0, are playing better than .500 hockey for the first time in recent memory, and are currently holding down the fourth spot in the East Division as the new year approaches.
The defending Stanley Cup Champion Hurricanes currently have seven prospects on Albany’s roster – four forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie – contributing to the team’s success.
The goaltending in Albany has been split just about evenly between the tandem of Carolina prospect Justin Peters and Tyler Weiman (COL). Head coach Tom Rowe has been playing the two on a steady rotation all season long as neither one has run away with the starting job as of yet. Statistically, Weiman has the better numbers of the two, with a 2.78 GAA, .902 save percentage and an 8-4 record in 14 games. Peters’ numbers are just slightly less impressive, as he’s compiled a 2.82 GAA and .897 save percentage in the 15 games he’s played. The 20-year-old is still adjusting to the pace of the professional game, along with the increased speed and skill of opposing players, but consistency and improved play can only come with more experience.
Albany’s defense corps this season has been manned chiefly by Colorado prospects Johnny Boychuk, Kyle Cumiskey, and Mitch Love, along with veteran Jeff Finger. Carolina prospects Brett Carson and Mark Flood have played well for the team, though in somewhat limited roles thus far.
Carson was initially slated to start the season with the River Rats in late September until being assigned to the organization’s ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades on Oct. 4. Carson appeared in three games for the Blades, tallying two points (a goal and an assist) before being recalled back to the River Rats on Oct. 27. Since then, the 6’4, 220-pound defenseman has played in 15 games for Albany, posting three assists and a +3 rating so far.
Flood is a newcomer to the Carolina organization, having been traded to the team at the end of last month. Acquired in the trade that saw veteran blueliner Derrick Walser head to the Syracuse Crunch, Flood, a second-year pro, has scored a goal and added two assists in just five games since arriving in Albany. Flood developed a reputation for being an offensive defenseman during his junior career, and could put up some good numbers from Albany’s blue line, especially on special teams.
It’s safe to say the Rats have had their struggles on offense this season, scoring a total of just 67 goals so far, placing them dead last in the Eastern Conference, and one shy of the league-low held by the Syracuse Crunch. Offensively, the team is led by their captain, Keith Aucoin, who had been pacing the team with 28 points in 20 games before a recent call-up to Carolina.
Beyond that, the next closest scorer has but half of Aucoin’s point total. Carolina prospect Pat Dwyer is tied with veteran Shane Willis for second in team scoring with 14 points (seven goals and seven assists in 26 games). The 5’11, 175-pound right wing, though he is small in stature, plays bigger than his size and is looking to build off a fairly impressive rookie campaign last season with the Chicago Wolves where he scored 45 points on 16 goals and 29 assists.
Jakub Petruzalek, like Flood, was also just recently acquired in a trade. Originally drafted by the New York Rangers, Petruzalek began this season with the Hartford Wolf Pack before getting assigned the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers. His nine points in seven games there earned him a recall back to Hartford, until he was dealt for veteran Brad Isbister on Nov. 21. The Most, Czech Republic native has three points in six games with the River Rats, and five points in 12 games overall. Though a very skilled forward, Petruzalek stands at just 5’9 and weighs in at 167 pounds, and is still trying to adjust to the North American style of hockey.
Kevin Estrada, a product of Michigan State University, has put up five points in 18 games with Albany so far. A feisty 5’11 forward, Estrada is a speedy skater who isn’t afraid to fight for position in front of the net, despite his size. Like Carson, he began this season with the Everblades until being recalled at the end of October. He spent the majority of last season (59 games) with the Lowell Lock Monsters, and is trying to improve on his five-goal, ten-assist performance of a year ago.
The final Carolina prospect of note playing on Albany’s roster right now is Joe Barnes. A third round draft choice of the Hurricanes in 2005, Barnes seems to be struggling in his first season of professional hockey, scoring three points (a goal and two assists) in 15 games, this after putting up good numbers in a four-year junior career with the Saskatoon Blades. So far this season, Barnes has played fairly regularly with Scott Kelman, while Estrada and Petruzalek have also seen some time playing alongside him.
The River Rats certainly have the potential to remain competitive all season. Defensively, the team is sound, allowing 76 goals, but the offense will need to improve if they want to advance any further in their division, and catch the likes of the Norfolk Admirals, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, or defending Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears. Improvement on the offensive end can only come with experience as the above players get more acclimated to the AHL.
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