By Ryan J. Harr
The Rochester Americans are off to one of their best starts in recent years, reaching the 50-point mark through their first 36 games of the season. To begin the New Year, the Amerks are second in the Eastern Conference with 50 points, trailing the Toronto Marlies by just two points.
First Half Recap
In the first-half of the 2017-18 season, the Amerks have notched points in 28 of the first 36 games and has collected 42 points since Nov. 1 while showing a record of 18-4-2-3 during that span.
“I think the first half of the season has been really good,” said Amerks head coach Chris Taylor. “The guys have really bought in to what we asked them to do and they are becoming a team, but more importantly, becoming a family. They are really caring about one another and are putting the team’s success first rather than their own personal success. ”
Rochester enters the calendar year as the only team in the league with one regulation loss while away from The Blue Cross as they hold a 12-1-3-2 record during the season.
“We have performed pretty well,” said forward Hudson Fasching. “We have come together as a team and I am really happy in the direction our team is heading. We have strung together a good stretch over the last little month but we must continue to build on this success.
Depth on Roster
Of the 34 players to appear in at least one game with the Amerks this season, eight have been recalled by the Buffalo Sabres over the first three months of the campaign. While the players were with the big club, the Amerks did not miss a beat because of the depth within the squad.
“We have a lot of depth on this this year’s team,” said Fasching. “Being able to play the game with all four lines consistently is big. It helps keeps that momentum of the game going smoothly and it keeps everyone fresh. The depth is a big part of our team and how we play.”
While only 18 skaters and two goaltenders can dress for each game, Taylor and his assistant coaches Gord Dineen and Toby Peterson feel they actually have more than just four lines and three pairings of defenseman.
“I think our depth is one of our strengths,” Taylor said. “If I look at our roster, I feel we have balanced lines and pairings. We have guys who deserve to play, but because of our depth, it is impossible not to play everyone. Having the depth is actually a good thing, it makes everyone better. Everyone wants to play and when one guy is playing well it makes the guys sitting out work that much harder to play.”
Linus Ullmark and Adam Wilcox have shared the duties in the crease for Rochester through the first half of the campaign. Ullmark has appeared in 26 games and shows a record of 17-5-3 while Wilcox boasts a 5-3-3 record in 13 appearances.
“Both Linus and Adam have made one another better every day over the course of the season,” said Taylor. “They both come to the rink ready to work no matter who is starting the next game. It is a healthy competition between the two and it is important for us as a team to have two strong goalies as we move forward.”
Ullmark, the former Swedish Goaltender of the Year and reigning team MVP, has won 16 of his last 22 starts and is 14-2-3 in his last 19 games dating back to Oct. 25. Wilcox, meanwhile, has won four of his last five starts, going 4-1-1 since Nov. 25.
“We have two really talented goaltenders,” Fasching said. “They are two guys we feel confident with. We know there is always a chance if there is mistake, and to have that in mind, it is very nice and calming. Over a long season, it’s helpful to have not only a deep team in the front-end but in the back-end as well.”
Special Teams Success and Goals
The Amerks are looking to continue with their strong penalty kill over the last 10 tilts of 2017 as they successfully killed off their last 28 infractions and have gone 33-for-34 (97.1%) since Dec. 10.
“When I think about penalty killing, if you can be in the top 10 in the league, it means you are a hard-working team,” said Taylor. “We have guys who care about the team and are putting their bodies on the line for the team as they are getting in the way of opponents shots.”
Rochester begins the next year ranked fifth in the American Hockey League with an 86.8% penalty kill percentage.
“I attribute our success with the fact that guys are feeling more and more comfortable with one another,” Fasching said. “We have pairings who typically kill penalties and being able to have that communication and trust level is really good.”
On the flip side of the penalty kill, the Rochester power-play unit holds the top spot in the North Division with a 17.4 percentage, but Taylor does not read into the ranking or numbers.
“Scoring is hard,” Taylor said. “Teams’ power-play success is about being in the right spot and at the right time. I look at success on the man-advantage as scoring timely goals, and big goals, rather than percentage.”
Health and Rest
The Amerks for the majority of the season have been healthy nearly all season and players who have been out of commission are inching closer to returning to the lineup.
“It has been nice rotating guys in and out of the lineup,” Taylor said. “It is much easier telling a guy that he is not playing and he is healthy rather than a guy rushing back from injury. I learned a lot last season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on how to handle guys when it comes to resting them or not.”
Looking Ahead To Second Half
Rochester opened the 2018 calendar portion of the schedule with back-to-back wins over Atlantic Division opponents, including another overtime victory.
“We are looking to build on the things that made us successful in the first half of the season” said Taylor. “No team is perfect, so we have certain areas we need to clean up in our game and if we do that it will make us a much better team.
“One of the things we need to improve on is we have to be better at home,” defenseman Stuart Percy said. “We have talked about that as a group. While on the road, we play simple and smart but now we just have to bring that effort every night when we play at The Blue Cross Arena.”