The Rochester Americans begin the 56th American Hockey League season in franchise history on Saturday night when they travel to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton to take on the North Division rival Bulldogs at 7 p.m.
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As the Amerks enter the 2011-12 season once again affiliated with the Buffalo Sabres for a 30th year, the team is loaded with new faces both on the roster and behind the bench. Head Coach Ron Rolston will make his Amerks debut after being hired to guide the team over the summer.
He’ll be aided by assistant coaches Chadd Cassidy and Jay McKee, along with development coach Chris Taylor and goaltending coach Bob Janosz. Rolston, who joined the Amerks from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, is one of 11 bench bosses who will make his AHL debut this weekend.
“I think everyone is excited for the start of the season and to start playing some games that mean something for points and standings, and more importantly to continue to find out where we are as a group,” Rolston said. “I think we’ve come a long way in the first two weeks of practice and (Saturday) night will be our first big challenge to see where we’re at.”
Rochester’s roster is comprised of several players who skated for the Portland Pirates – Buffalo’s AHL affiliate for the past three years – last season and won the Atlantic Division title, finishing the regular season with a record of 47-24-7-2 for 103 points. The top returning scorer from that team is Rochester native Derek Whitmore, who registered career-highs in goals (27), assists (20) and points (47) and is returning for his second stint with the Amerks after playing in eight games with his hometown team during the 2007-08 campaign.
Another player returning for a second go-round with the Amerks is forward Michael Ryan, who played in 210 games with the organization from 2003 to 2006 and is coming off a 26-goal season last year with Adirondack and Springfield.
The defense corps is deep and anchored by Drew Schiestel. Last season, Schiestel was selected to represent the Portland Pirates in the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic but was unable to participate in the game due to injury. In his shortened season, Schiestel recorded 23 points (5+18) and a +15 rating in just 45 games.
Rolston thinks his group of blue liners will make a solid contribution on offense throughout the season.
“We have a lot of offensive defensemen,” Rolston said. “If you’re going to win in hockey nowadays, you have to have your defense get up in the play and help create offense.”
Game Notes: The Rochester Americans kick off their 56th season in the American Hockey League as they usher in the 2011-12 campaign against the Hamilton Bulldogs at Copps Coliseum. The 7 p.m. contest will be the first of 10 scheduled meetings between the North Division rivals this season and will be broadcast live on 107.3 FM and 1280 AM, Rochester’s Sports Talk.
Head-to-Head: The Amerks fell short in the season series with Hamilton in 2010-11, finishing with a record of 3-4-0-1. After dropping the first three matchups, the Amerks came out on top in three of the final five meetings. In “Bulldog territory”, Rochester came out victorious just once in four tries, a 3-2 victory on February 12.
Season Openers: The Amerks boast a 27-21-7 all-time record in season-opening games, outscoring their opponents 206-184 over the past 55 years. Rochester also began the 2010-2011 season on the road, a 4-2 win over the Toronto Marlies.
Welcome Home, Welcome Back: Amerks forwards Michael Ryan and Derek Whitmore both have past ties to Rochester, and are set to represent the area once again this season.
Ryan, back for his second stint in an Amerks uniform, previously suited up for Rochester from 2003 to 2006 in a total of 210 regular season games. During this time, the 31 year-old amassed 122 points (56+66) and 194 penalty minutes. He also dressed for 11 playoff games in Rochester, putting up five points (4+1) along the way. Last season, Ryan split time between Springfield and Adirondack while contributing 44 points (26+18) in 58 combined AHL games.
Whitmore, the only local product on this year’s squad, grew up in Rochester, even making his professional debut for the Amerks in 2007-08, scoring one goal in eight games. In a total of 243 regular season AHL games, the left-winger has registered 104 points (57+47), as well as 13 points (7+6) in 21 playoff games.
Hamilton Notes: The Bulldogs are coming off a stellar season which saw them wrap-up the top spot in the North Division, earning 92 points with a record of 44-27-2-7. Guided by former Amerks bench boss Randy Cunneyworth and propelled by series victories over Oklahoma City (4-2) and Manitoba (4-3), the club also enjoyed a deep run in the playoffs before falling to the Houston Aeros in seven games (4-3) in the Western Conference Finals.
Returning to front the Hamilton offense for the start of the season will be the team’s second leading scorer from last season, Aaron Palushaj. The 22-year old forward contributed 57 points (22+35) in 68 regular season games, while adding 19 points (7+12) in 19 playoff contests. On the blueline, the Bulldogs will be led by team captain Alex Henry, who has skated in over 550 AHL regular season games, in addition to his 68 postseason appearances.
Next Game: Rochester’s 2011-12 Home Opener is set for Thursday, October 13 as it hosts the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at 7:05 p.m. at The Blue Cross Arena. Prior to the game, fans are invited to re-live the storied history of the Rochester Americans franchise as more than 40 Amerks alumni walk the red carpet in celebration of the Amerks’ reunion with the Buffalo Sabres. The collection of former players and coaches will then be introduced on the ice during a pre-game ceremony.