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by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres

WEEKLY NOTES: One week is all that remains in the month of February, and like the 29 other teams in the American Hockey League, the Rochester Americans are in full throttle as the league enters the final third of the 2011-12 regular season. The race to the postseason will certainly heat up over the next six weeks as the road to the Calder Cup begins to take shape. After claiming just two out of a possible six points this past weekend, the Amerks enter the final week of the month with home-ice advantage on their side as they look to inch their way up the Western Conference standings, and more importantly, solidify a playoff berth. With another three games on tap over the course of the next six nights, Rochester has the opportunity to make up some ground at a time where every possible point becomes increasingly important. This week’s slate of games features a battle between the AHL’s cornerstone franchises in a midweek tilt with Hershey before the Amerks go up against Adirondack and Lake Erie on back-to-back nights to bring the weekend to a close.

Friday, Feb. 17 vs. Lake Erie – W, 6-2… Multiple-point efforts from four different skaters drove the Rochester Americans to a 6-2 victory in the first of back-to-back meetings with the North Division rival Lake Erie Monsters Friday night at The Blue Cross Arena. Phil Varone led the way for Rochester with a season-high three-point (0+3) performance, with T.J. Brennan (1+1), Derek Whitmore (2+0), and Luke Adam (0+2) each chipping in two. Marcus Foligno, Maxime Legault and Brayden McNabb also found the back of the net for Rochester while David Leggio turned away 20 of 22 shots between the pipes. The game, which featured the 20th goal of the season for Whitmore, also saw the Amerks net a game-high three power-play goals on eight man-advantage opportunities.

Saturday, Feb. 18 @ Lake Erie – L, 3-1… On Saturday night, the home-and-home series between the Amerks and Monsters shifted to Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, where Lake Erie earned its first win of the season over Rochester by a 3-1 count. Varone tallied the lone goal for Rochester in the contest, with assists going to Travis Turnbull and Leggio, who also finished the night with 31 saves in his third consecutive start.

Sunday, Feb. 19 vs. Hamilton – L, 7-3… Having already met eight times this season, the Amerks returned home to close out the weekend with a 7-3 loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs Sunday evening as both teams were playing their third game in as many nights. Corey Tropp, Paul Szczechura and Whitmore all provided single tallies for the Amerks, while Varone extended his point streak to three games with an assist, giving him five points (1+4) on the weekend. Drew MacIntyre finished the night with 41 saves between the pipes.

THIS WEEK’S OPPONENTS: The oldest rivalry in the American Hockey League will be renewed on Wednesday, February 22 in Rochester when the Amerks welcome the Hershey Bears to The Blue Cross Arena for the only time this season. The puck drops on the 444th all-time meeting between the league’s two oldest teams at 7:05 p.m. with all the action being carried live on 107.3 FM and 1280 AM, Rochester’s Sports Talk. The game will also be televised live on Time Warner Cable SportsNet Channel 26. The matchup will be the second and final of the season between the Amerks and Bears, who last met on January 8 in Hershey where the Bears came away with a 4-3 shootout win despite a three-goal, third period comeback by the Amerks and a 49-save performance by Leggio. Rochester is 184-205-54 all-time against their longtime nemesis.

Rochester continues its four-game homestand on Friday, February 24 as the Amerks and Adirondack Phantoms square off in the third of four get-togethers this season. Game time is slated for a 7:35 p. m. start at The Blue Cross Arena and will be broadcast live on 107.3 FM and 1280 AM, Rochester’s Sports Talk. The Amerks carry a 0-1-1-0 record into the matchup against the Phantoms after dropping a 3-2 overtime decision in the most recent meeting with Adirondack back on December 10 at the Glens Falls Civic Center. The teams will complete the season series later this season on Sunday, April 8 when the Amerks visit their instrastate rival prior to the end of the regular season.

The Amerks will bring the month of February to a close the following night when the Lake Erie Monsters return to the Flower City for the second time in as many weeks. The 7:35 p.m. contest will also mark the third encounter in nine days for the North Division rivals, who are coming off their two-game split this past weekend. Rochester has claimed three of the first four meetings with Lake this season and has outscored the Monsters 16-11 through the previous four engagements. Home-ice advantage proved to be the deciding factor in the recent home-and-home series between the two teams as Rochester used a three-goal third period to cruise to a 6-2 win over the Monsters on Friday before Lake Erie responded with 3-1 victory of its own on Saturday. The Amerks are 3-1-0-0 this season and 13-16-2 lifetime against the Colorado Avalanche’s affiliate.

AMERKS NOTES: Rochester (23-21-6-3, 55 points) enters the week in the thick of what is shaping up to be a very tight race to the finish among its fellow Western Conference opponents, where just a mere four points is all that separates the Amerks from their closest rivals, including Abbotsford, who currently ranks sixth with 59 points. After claiming just two out of a possible six points this past weekend, the Amerks have fallen to third in the division standings, trailing only the second-place Lake Erie Monsters by a point. Hamilton, too, is closing its gap, and coming off its 7-3 win over Rochester last night, now sits within two points of the Amerks with a game in hand. In addition to their pursuit of the first-place Toronto Marlies, who remain nine points ahead of the Amerks for the top spot in the North Division, the Amerks are presently tied with Milwaukee for 10th in the Western Conference, needing all but four points for to secure the eighth and final playoff spot. This week’s slate of games has Rochester in action three times over the next six nights, including three games in a four-night stretch to bring the month of February to a close.

THE STREAK CONTINUES: With a pair of goals in Friday night’s win over Lake Erie, Whitmore became the first player this season to net 20 goals on his way to posting back-to-back 20-goal campaigns for the first time in his professional career. In doing so, Whitmore also preserved Rochester’s 56-year tradition of having at least one player from each season since the team’s inception in 1956 to score 20 or more goals, a streak that was sparked by Bronco Horvath’s team-leading 37 tallies during the Amerks’ inaugural 1956-57 season.

WHO’S HOT: Varone has taken over the team lead in scoring with 33 points (8+25) by notching five points (1+4) in the last three games, a streak highlighted by a season-high three-point (0+3) game Friday against Lake Erie. After starting the season with just six points in the first 23 games, Varone has scored 27 points in the last 30 games. During the month of February alone, Varone has registered nine points (3+8) in nine games and has been held scoreless just three times over the last 13 contests. Foligno, who ranks second on the team in scoring, has also recorded nine points (1+8) in nine games this month and has been held off the scoresheet just twice in the last 10 games. Foligno has also amassed 20 points (4+16) over his last 24 games, a stretch that includes five multi-point performances. McNabb, yet another rookie, has recorded nine points (1+8) over his last nine games since his return from the Sabres, including three consecutive appearances with multiple points from February 4-10. With points in four of the last five games, Szczechura has recorded 13 points (7+6) in his last 15 games and has already moved into fourth on the team in scoring with 28 points (11+17) in just 34 games this season. Tropp has six points (1+5) in his first six games back in the lineup following a 10-game injury absence, while Brennan, who carried a career-best seven-game point streak (3+5) into 2012, shows 14 points (5+9) in his last 15 games and has only been held scoreless four times during that stretch. Whitmore has three goals over his last three games and has five points (4+1) in as many outings. Despite currently being on NHL recall, Zack Kassian was in the midst of a three-game goal scoring streak and had back-to-back games with multiple goals, giving him 12 points (8+4) in his last 12 games with the Amerks, prior to re-joining the Sabres.

TEAM AND LEAGUE LEADERS: With impressive numbers through the first nine games of February, Varone (8+25) and Foligno (13+19) have quickly ascended to the top of Rochester’s point leaders. The pair of rookie forwards enter the week ranked 1-2 on the Amerks scoring list and are 14th and 15th among league rookies in overall scoring, respectively. Foligno and McNabb rank in the top 20 in the AHL with +13 on-ice ratings. Foligno also sits tied for 13th in the league with four game-winning goals this season, which are the second-most among first-year skaters. Whitmore shows a team-best 21 goals, including six on the power-play, and is on pace to match his career-high 27 he scored last season in Portland. His 21 goals rank him tied for 11th among the AHL’s top goal scorers, while he also ranks 10th in the AHL with 165 shots on goal. With 15 helpers through his last 22 games, Varone has taken over the team lead with 25 assists and is the only Amerk this season to appear in all 53 games thus far. Defenseman Joe Finley leads Rochester with 85 penalty minutes. Brennan (9+12) and McNabb (2+17) continue to lead all Rochester blueliners with 21 and 19 points, respectively. Leggio, who has started eight of the last 11 games for the Amerks, boasts a 15-15-1 record with a 2.78 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in 31 games. Coming off his first shutout of the season in a 33-save effort against Abbotsford on February 2, he presently ranks seventh among AHL netminders in saves (888) and tied for 14th in wins. He’s also 12th in minutes played (1,837) and tied for 17th in save percentage.

ROOKIES STEPPING IT UP: The transition to the professional ranks for the Amerks’ freshmen this season has undoubtedly been a successful one for the young Buffalo Sabres prospects. Entering this week, three of Rochester’s top five scorers are currently in their first pro season, including each of the top two scorers on the team. The Amerks have scored 153 goals through the first 53 games this season, but more impressively, 42 have been netted by a rookie, which equates to more than 25% of this year’s total offense. On a team that features eight different first-year players, four have made their NHL debuts with Buffalo and even spent significant time with the big club.

BY THE NUMBERS: The Amerks are 10-10-3-1 (24 points) this season against North Division rivals, but show a 13-11-3-2 (31 points) mark versus non-divisional foes. Rochester has outscored its opponents 84-73 at The Blue Cross Arena this season. The third period has been the Amerks’ strong suit thus far as the club has accounted for 54 goals while allowing 40. The Amerks have scored the first goal in 26 of the first 53 games of the campaign and show a 16-8-1-1 record when doing so, including a 9-4-0-0 mark at home. Rochester is also 13-0-1-0 when leading after two periods, a streak that also comes with an unblemished 9-0-0-0 mark at home.

HOME, SWEET HOME: Home-ice advantage has certainly been a factor in Rochester’s recent success as the Amerks are 10-7-2-0 in their last 19 games at home, including 4-2-1-0 in the last seven. After beginning the season with just two home wins in the first five outings, the Amerks show a 14-9-2-1 record (31 points) this season when playing in their downtown barn. Conversely, Rochester is 9-12-4-2 (24 points) away from the friendly confines of The Blue Cross Arena.

SPECIAL TEAMS BREAKDOWN: On the penalty kill, Rochester has successfully killed off 179-of-228 (78.5%) shorthanded situations, including 94 of 117 at home for an 80.3% efficiency rate. As a team, Rochester has allowed eight shorthanded goals against, four coming at home and four on the road. They have also scored six shorthanded goals, as Varone scored his team-leading second of the season Saturday at Lake Erie.

MILESTONE WATCH: Back from a four-month injury absence that sidelined him for 44 games, veteran forward Michael Ryan reached a benchmark in his nine-year professional career on February 11 against San Antonio by playing in his 400th professional game, 218 of which have been played in Rochester. MacIntyre’s next win will represent the 50th of his AHL career while injured Evan Rankin is four points shy of 200 professional points and six assists away from 100 assists. Team captain Colin Stuart is on the verge of yet another personal milestone, needing just 11 more points for 200 in his AHL career. Tropp needs just three more games to reach the century mark for his AHL career.

THIS WEEK IN AMERKS HISTORY: Check out what happened this week in Amerks history over the years.

February 20, 1991 – Exactly 21 years ago today, Amerks Hall of Famer Jody Gage scores the franchise’s 10,000th goal in a 6-2 win over Moncton at the War Memorial.

February 20, 2002 – Today also marks the 10-year anniversary of Rochester’s 1,700th franchise win as Hall of Famer Craig Charron nets the game-winning goal to guide the Amerks to a 4-2 victory over Hamilton at Copps Coliseum.

February 21, 2010 – The Amerks joined elite company with their historic 2,000th franchise win with via a 3-2 shootout over the Portland Pirates at The Blue Cross Arena. Rochester became just the second team in the American Hockey League and only the eighth team in North American hockey history to collect 2,000 wins. In addition to all the founding original six members of the National Hockey League, the only other AHL team to accomplish the feat is the Hershey Bears.

UPCOMING PROMOTIONS: The Rochester Americans will hold their annual Wendy’s Skate on Tuesday, February 21 from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. at The Blue Cross Arena.  Fans can stop in at any participating Monroe County Wendy’s location to pick up a free pass to the event. Passes are distributed out on a first-come, first-served basis while supplies last. One pass admits one person and all patrons must have their passes present upon arrival to attend. Skates and helmets are required for all participants Wednesday’s game against Hershey will be another “WindDown Wednesday”, Rochester’s midweek Business Persons Special that invites patrons to exchange their business cards at The Blue Cross Arena Box Office for an $11 ticket in the best available seating location anywhere in the arena. Friday’s contest falls on the next installment of the “Ditch the Dorms” night. The Amerks are encouraging all college students to “Ditch the Dorms” on Friday nights and bring the party downtown for Amerks College Nights. Current students who show a valid school ID can get best available seating anywhere in the arena for as low as $10.00. In conjunction with Savor Catering at The Blue Cross Arena, fans can take part in the “Amerks Happy Hour” from 6:30-7:30 in the Upper Atrium Bar with $2.00 drafts, courtesy of Molson and Coors Light. On Saturday, fans can receive special discounted tickets for showing their true colors. The game features the fourth “Hockey Night in Rochester” promotion of the season. For all Saturday home games for the rest of year, fans that show up sporting either an Amerks or Sabres jersey can purchase $12.00 tickets from The Blue Cross Arena Box Office for best available seating.
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