The Albany River Rats, coming off an impressive four-game first-round sweep of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, are about to face their toughest challenge yet.
Due to the American Hockey League's divisional playoff format, the Rats have drawn the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears in the second round – a team that posted a league-record 60 wins and gave the Rats fits in the regular season. The Bears took the last five meetings, scoring a massive 36 goals in the process. The series begins Saturday night in Hershey.
“They’ve got a lot of guys that were on their team last year when they won the championship, and they’re probably better this year,” said Daniels. “They’ve got a good mix, including some veterans who could probably play in the NHL.”
Among those is former Hurricane Keith Aucoin, a nine-year AHL veteran who led the league in regular-season scoring with 106 points. Right behind him with 103 points and a league-leading 50 goals was Alexandre Giroux, who also has nine minor-league seasons under his belt. Giroux was the only player with more goals than River Rats forward Jerome Samson
, who netted 37.
Albany forward Oskar Osala was part of the Bears’ 2009 championship team, having played in Hershey as recently as March prior to the deadline-day trade made between the Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. As a 22-year-old on this year’s veteran-laden Bears squad, Osala managed 29 points in 53 games, but scored 12 points in just 16 games while receiving more ice time with Albany.
"I would predict they could play even matches against many NHL teams," Osala told the Albany Times-Union. "That's how good they are."
Hershey, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, defeated Bridgeport in five games in the first round, including a 4-1 victory in Game 5 that saw the Bears out-shoot their opponents by an impressive 34-7 margin.
Regular-season struggles aside, the River Rats have reason to be optimistic this time. With the Hurricanes’ season over and players like Zach Boychuk, Jamie McBain and Justin Peters back in the lineup after successful NHL stints, they’re fielding their best and most healthy lineup of the season. Those players have hit the ground running since returning to the minors.
”We were excited that those players were sent down, but you don’t know how they’re going to respond at first,” said Daniels. “Those guys didn’t change anything in their game, but the biggest concerns were chemistry and line combinations. Fortunately those guys played here for the majority of the season and were comfortable here.”
Leading the charge of players recently reassigned from Carolina is McBain, who paces the team with four playoff goals and a +5 plus/minus rating. Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford already expects the 22-year-old defenseman to be an integral part of the NHL team next season, with the player’s current performance supporting that notion.
“We’ve had a chance to see him grow as a player this season, and he’s sky-high right now in confidence,” said Daniels. “He’s on a different level right now.”
For a younger team even by AHL standards, the River Rats also showed a great amount of maturity in the first round by finding a way to win close games. One might not know it from the final result of a sweep, but each game was decided by one goal save Game 4, which narrowly became a two-goal game thanks to a late empty-netter.
Also encouraging was the fact that they were often able to shake off would-be-backbreaking goals against with quick responses of their own. That was most evident in the opening game, when Wilkes-Barre scored with 82 seconds remaining in regulation to complete a two-goal comeback and seemingly force overtime, only to see Albany’s Nick Dodge win it just 32 seconds after that.
”We played a lot of one-goal games during the season, and I felt we were comfortable in that situation,” said Daniels. “(Poise) was huge for us in that series, starting in Game 1 and going on all the way through.”
They’ll continue to need that against high-octane Hershey, as a few quick goals against could potentially bring back some of those old feelings from the regular season. Hershey claimed a 8-2 victory in the most recent match-up on March 19, which went along with 10-4 and 8-3 results from earlier in the season.
”We have to stay disciplined and play within our system and not panic if we find ourselves in a difficult situation,” Daniels said.