The Belleville Senators are back home where they will hope home ice advantage will be the difference as they get ready to make a push in what is a tight North Division in the American Hockey League.
Yes, the Laval Rocket have run away with the division lead (they currently have a 16-point lead on second place Manitoba) but it's the Moose that the Sens (10-13-1) have in their sights, sitting just five points behind them as the AHL season draws into its last month.
After a slow start - Belleville started the season 2-8 - the Senators just returned from an eight-game road trip where they went 5-2-1. They were beaten 5-4 by Laval Wednesday night but six of their remaining eight games this season are at the Canadian Tire Centre.
"The start, quite frankly, didn't really surprise me with the youthfulness of our team," Sens head coach Troy Mann said. "I do think the team's structure overall has continually improved over the last five weeks. The young guys have obviously improved immensely so when you put both combinations together, I think we've been able to have some results."
A large part of the Sens' recent success has been scoring. Through their first 10 games, the Sens scored just 18 times at an average of 1.8 goals a game. Since, they're averaging 3.21 a game after scoring 45 goals in 14 games.
"I think our best offensive players this year are our young guys," Mann said. "It's been a challenge, but it has gotten better recently."
Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the offence has spiked since Angus Crookshank joined the Sens after signing his entry-level contract and completing his quarantine.
The University of New Hampshire alum started his pro career with a six-game point streak and has two goals and nine assists in nine games.
"He's been great," Mann said. "I wasn't too familiar with him. I knew he was a draft pick, saw him at developmental camp two years ago but my job is to coach the players that are put in front of me. Once we knew he was signing his NHL contract, we did our homework. He's very tenacious on the puck, he's fearless going to the blue paint. Has great compete. Real strong work ethic and wants to be a player.
"He's very coachable in terms of wanting to get better and I think the results have been very good. The defensive part of the game is still a work in progress but he's been a great addition to help what's been a very challenging offensive team."
In addition to Crookshank, Mann offered up some assessments of other Sens prospects:
Mann on Vitaly Abramov (22GP, 6G, 11A)
Abramov, if you look at his season so far, he had a very slow start. But he had 16 points in his last 14 games and was leading our team in scoring. He's the kind of player that has to be contributing offensively and I thought over the last few weeks he was one of the reasons we were able to string together some wins and score enough goals to help our goaltending out. For the most part, Filip Gustavsson in particular, has been really solid if you look at his numbers, and one of the reasons we weren't maybe able to have a better record in the first 10 was our inability to score so I think Abramov starting to get points, goals and assists, which is his strength, earned him the call to the taxi squad but also jumpstarted us to get some wins.
Mann on Egor Sokolov (24GP, 11G, 5A)
When players have success, they gain confidence and that is a tough thing to accumulate over time and you've got to earn it and I think he's the type of player that continues to work at his game on and off the ice. He wants to be a player and you can't give him enough information and that makes him tremendously coachable but on top of that, it helps him to get better. Getting acclimated with the league and learning how to be a pro took some time but once he was able to start finding the back of the net and gaining confidence, he's become a factor in pretty much every one of our games now.
Mann on Parker Kelly (24GP, 6G, 5A)
He's one of those sparkplug kind of players and he's much more effective when he's getting under people's skin out there and using his speed on the forecheck. He's got more offensive ability at this level than perhaps people give him credit for. He's got a really good shot and he's become arguably our best penalty killer. The one thing we've talked to him a lot about is that for him to be in the NHL, he's one of the guys whose role here in the American League is going to be identical to that in the National Hockey League. Some players can adjust to different roles when they go from the American League to the NHL where Parker is going to be one of those guys where it's going to be how you see him play at this level, is going to be how he makes it at the NHL level. He's got some really good leadership qualities about him too so that's something else we like as a coaching staff.
Mann on Jonathan Aspirot (18GP, 3G, 5A)
Recently, he's had a great stretch. He had a slow start to the season. Our opinion on it was he spent the first 18 days of the NHL season on the taxi squad which was a reward for the type of camp he had and the type of season he had last year and we all know he earned himself an NHL contract. But in retrospect, the taxi squad, without playing games and not being able to practice on a daily basis with the main group, probably slowed his season down. I thought he was just getting his game together but then he got hurt but recently, he's been very good. He's got such a big engine and we've got him playing some power play minutes now which is not something he did last year but we knew that with Moncton in Major Junior, he did play some power play for them. We lack that offensive defenceman this year unlike last year … so he's earning some power play time and the points have come and he's able to get his shot through quite a bit from the point. I think he's got a bright future and that his game is just coming together here in the last two or three weeks.
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