Houston Aeros defenseman Justin Falk
hears it all the time from his teammates, particularly the smaller skill guys.
They tell him how they'd love to be in his size range of 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. Falk has a standard retort. He reminds them how lucky they are to be able to skate like the wind and work the puck as though it's on a string.
"They think the skating comes so easy to tall guys," said Falk, a second-year pro. "I tell them it's a lot of work to develop what I have so far."
This season, Falk and the Aeros defense are growing into their games quite nicely. The parallel development is no coincidence.
Falk, 21, is one of the stay-at-home rocks on a team that is fifth in the AHL with a goals-against of 2.62. That stinginess is one of the reasons the Aeros remain in a battle for a playoff spot in the West Division.
"We are very strong defensively. We take a lot of pride in that," Falk said. "The last couple months, the D-corps has buckled down. I try to be that anchor back there, where they have that confidence to play this guy any time, anywhere. I want to be reliable."
While Falk has now turned his height into a hockey edge, it's also a reason why he pondered turning away from the sport. He was a pitcher in his younger days, one with a lively arm who was good enough to get invited to a Minnesota Twins showcase camp.
But Falk stuck with hockey because he thought prospects move up the chain quicker in that sport. Falk's challenge was that before he could jump on the express train he had to work on matching his coordination and fundamentals with his size.
"For the physical traits, the size, I always had. When I hit my growth spurt, from 13-16, the skills kind of disappeared for a while," Falk said. "Once I moved on to the next level, you realize, 'OK, now I'm big, I have to figure everything out again.' Last year, I'd be in and out of the lineup at times, or wouldn't play in the third period. Now, I can be a go-to guy out there."
The scary part for Houston's opponents is that Falk may be ready to combine a power forward's size with a slippery playmaker's moves. In a contest against Peoria on Feb. 3, he toe-dragged around a Riverman defender at the top of the right point, cut into the slot and snapped a forehand 5-hole for just his second score of the season.
"Obviously, it will put a lot more confidence in me with the puck," he said. "But not to take it too far."
-- Grand Rapids forward Justin Abdelkader
splashed into the NHL last season with a lot of hype.
It's a good thing he's one of those who didn't get caught up in it. That made his demotion from the Red Wings to the Griffins last month a lot easier to handle.
Abdelkader, one of the up-and-comers in the Detroit system, was deemed in need of a little more polishing after contributing just 3 goals and 3 assists in 50 games for Detroit.
"When I found out, in a way, the writing was on the wall. I'm on a two-way contract. I didn't have to clear waivers," said Abdelkader, 22. "I didn't necessarily think I was there for good. I figured eventually I'd come down to Grand Rapids. Here I am."
That's the type of announcement Abdelkader made when he joined the Red Wings for the playoffs last season, only he spoke loudest with actions instead of words. After earning honors on the AHL's all-rookie team (24-28 for Grand Rapids) and leading the Griffins with 6 goals in 10 playoff games, Abdelkader grabbed the spotlight in the star-laden Stanley Cup Final between Detroit and Pittsburgh.
He became the first player in history to score his first two NHL goals in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, after also becoming the first player since current Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek
(1991, Pittsburgh) to score his first NHL goal in that round.
"It almost seems like just yesterday," he said. "I think playing in Grand Rapids last year prepared me for that opportunity. I got the taste of it (in the Final). It makes me want to work harder and chip in as much as I can."
Abdelkader's waning offensive contributions apparently weren't a major concern given his depth-player role. But he said with his potential contributions on the penalty kill, the Red Wings told him to work on his draw control in Grand Rapids.
"It's just day-in and day-out getting better," he said. "It's obviously frustrating going down. But there're a lot of good guys down here, guys who will eventually be up in Detroit full time. Detroit likes bringing their players along slowly, putting them in the minors until they are over-ripe and ready to go. You have to understand that."
-- Adirondack Phantoms forward Rob Bellamy
's rooting interest for the U.S. women's hockey team in the upcoming Olympics runs much deeper than mere national pride.
Bellamy's younger sister, Kacey, is a defenseman on the squad.
"I'm going to do as much as I can to see her games on TV," Rob said. "It's awesome to be a part of it. It's good to see her keep developing as a player. I think she's going to do just fine. I talk about her a lot. I let the guys know she's going to be in the Olympics."
Bellamy, from Westfield, Mass., said he sensed there'd be something different about his sister after they battled as younger players.
"When we were younger, we played a lot of street hockey. It was pretty competitive. A couple times, she shut me down," he said. "You could tell she was one of the more elite players (as she got older). I could tell she could see the ice well. She just got better and better. Now, this is the highest step for her."
Around the AHL
"We are very strong defensively. We take a lot of pride in that. The last couple months, the D-corps has buckled down. I try to be that anchor back there, where they have that confidence to play this guy any time, anywhere. I want to be reliable." -- Justin Falk
-- Oklahoma City will be joining the AHL in 2010-11. Edmonton, which is now affiliated with Springfield, is activating its dormant AHL franchise and moving it to the city. ... Abbotsford head coach Jim Playfair participated in the Olympic torch relay on Feb. 7 as it passed through Abbotsford. A native of Fort St. James, B.C., Playfair lit the flame and helped the relay on one of its final legs before arriving in Vancouver for the opening of the Olympic Games. ... Hershey is the first AHL team to post 80 points through the season's first 50 games since the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, who went on to set the league records for wins (57) and points (124). ... Hamilton allowed just 12 shots against Toronto on Feb. 6, a new franchise low. The previous record of 13 was set eight years ago to the day against the Hershey Bears. ... Hamilton's trio of Brock Trotter
, David Desharnais
and Ryan White, who have combined for 121 points and a plus-39 rating for the Bulldogs this season, all earned an NHL recall to parent-club Montreal on Feb. 5. The threesome spent time on a line together for the Canadiens over the weekend and combined for nine shots on goal in a 5-3 win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 6 and a 3-0 loss to Boston on Feb. 7. ... Bridgeport had gone 22-consecutive games without scoring more than three goals before a 6-4 win over Manchester on Feb. 6. ... After shutting out his opponent in two straight games, Manchester netminder Jonathan Bernier
has let in eight goals on 66 shots in the last two contests. ... Portland's 2-0 win over Providence on Feb. 5 gave Pirates coach Kevin Dineen
his 200th career regular-season win. ... When Grand Rapids forward John Vigilante
scored 2:34 into a game against Toronto on Feb. 5, the goal gave the Griffins their first home lead in a span of 236:36 and their first lead in any game in 416:36, with both streaks stretching back to the first period of their Jan. 17 contest versus Rockford. ... Hartford's 5-1 win at Norfolk on Feb. 6 was its first regulation victory since Jan. 8 at Worcester, a four-week stretch that included four overtime wins. ... Alexander Salak
made an AHL season-high 53 saves in Rochester's 5-4 win over Binghamton on Feb. 6. ... With that victory, the Amerks improved to 16-3-0-0 against the AHL's other four teams from New York. ... Benn Ferriero
tied a Worcester Sharks record with his third shorthanded goal of the season Feb. 7 vs. Providence. ... Albany's Jerome Samson
scored twice in the first 60 seconds of his team's 7-6 overtime win vs. Springfield on Feb. 6. ... When John Vigilante
scored 2:34 into Grand Rapids' 6-3 win over Toronto on Feb. 5, it gave the Griffins their first home lead in a span of 236:36 and their first lead in any game in 416:36, with both streaks stretching back to the first period of their Jan. 17 contest versus Rockford.