TUCSON -- The Coyotes wanted forward Lawson Crouse to play in the American Hockey League this season so he could become a more dynamic player.
"He's had an unbelievable attitude," said Steve Sullivan, the team's assistant general manager who also serves as G.M. of the Tucson Roadrunners, Arizona's AHL affiliate. "He hasn't taken this as a demotion. He's taken this as a way of trying to kind of augment what we want from him. Sure, he could have played in the NHL this season and been a fourth-line guy and probably play for years in that role. But we see him as more than that. We wanted him to come down here and try to round out his game so when he goes back up to the Coyotes he can be further up in our lineup. We see him as a big piece of the Coyotes going forward."
Crouse notched a goal and an assist for Tucson on Wednesday night during its 6-0 home win over San Jose in Game 3 of a first-round series of the AHL playoffs. He also delivered some big hits with his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame. The Roadrunners will take a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 on Friday night at Tucson. Game 5, if necessary, will be played in Tucson on Saturday.
Crouse, who played 56 games for Tucson and 11 for Arizona this season, is eager to show Coyotes management how he's developed his game. He notched 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) for the Roadrunners before the playoffs started.
"It's been a good learning experience," Crouse said after Wednesday's game. "No matter where you play, whether it's junior hockey, the NHL or the AHL, you can learn a little bit from everything. I'm just doing whatever I can here, controlling the things that I can control and playing the way I can play. They told me what I needed to work on and I think this has been really good for my development. The NHL is a big puck possession game. Not throwing pucks away or holding it when you can or finding that extra second to make a play is huge. That's what they want to see and that's what I'm trying to show them."
Three games into the playoffs, Crouse is averaging a point per game and ranks second on the team with eight shots on goal. Only Dylan Strome has taken more shots (nine) in the series vs. San Jose.
"I like to play strong, mean," said Crouse, the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. "Adding that offensive side to my game is huge. I've just got to keep working on it. You can never get good enough at the small things, puck skills and stuff like that, so I've been putting in the work and obviously it's nice to get rewarded here."
Sullivan says Crouse has been a difference maker for Tucson, the top seed in the AHL's Western Conference.
"He's done everything we've asked him to do," Sullivan said. "He's been a little bit more offensive, he's held on to pucks a lot better and he's taken pucks to the net. He's been a real physical force down here in almost every single game. He's been overwhelming the other team's defensemen with his physical play. He's just kind of rounded out his whole game and has really taken the next step. We wanted to see how much more offense there was to his game. We don't want him to be just a dump-it-in-and-go-bang player or just an energy guy. We want him to be a productive player who puts some points up, and he's done that down here with flying colors. Every single night he just jumps off the page."
Crouse is enjoying Tucson's ride into the postseason and is confident the Roadrunners can make a deep run.
"I think we realize we have a special group," Crouse said. "Everyone gets along. Everyone bonds. We're like family. When you have a group like that you're a tough team to beat when you put the right foot forward."
Nearly 5,000 fans attended Wednesday's game at Tucson Arena and more than that is expected for Game 4 on Friday.
"It was pretty crazy," Crouse said of the atmosphere at Game 3. "All year long, the fans have been very good to us, but tonight it was like they put it on another level … It's fun to play in front of. You can really see that the people of Tucson care about the hockey. When they come out and support us it makes a huge difference."