Like the Sabres, Amerks struggling early

October 24, 2017
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It was a rough weekend for the Rochester Americans, who like the Sabres are off to a rough start to the 2017-18 season.

In the first weekend of the season, Rochester grabbed back-to-back wins over the Syracuse Crunch, but have since gone cold with three straight home losses. In the three losses, the Amerks have been out-scored by a 12-3 total, despite out-shooting the opposition 96-92.

On Friday, the Amerks dropped a 5-2 decision to the Charlotte Checkers after taking a 2-0 lead through the first 20 minutes of play. After the Amerks scored twice on five shots in the first period, goalie Linus Ullmark gave up a couple of soft goals and was pulled after the fourth goal against at the 14:08 mark of the second period. Along with Ullmark's struggles in the game, the Amerks played quite sloppy in front of him with missed assignments and poor puck play overall.

“We just didn’t play with confidence, we didn’t finish hits, we didn’t do anything very well tonight,” said Amerks head coach Chris Taylor following the loss. “It was just evident. We were lucky to be up 2-0 after the first. We just weren’t good enough.”

“I understand it is a process, but a loss like tonight is unacceptable. We have to put this one behind us. I expect us to come out strong and hard.”

The effort was not much better on Saturday night against the Utica Comets. Rochester came out flying on Saturday, throwing shot after shot on Comets goalie Thatcher Demko in the opening 20 minutes. The shots at the end of the period were 22-6 in favor of the Amerks, however they found themselves down 3-0 after Utica scored three powerplay goals in the period. Adam Wilcox came out of the net for Ullmark after the first period, but Utica added two more goals in the second period.

Despite scoring a goal in the third period, the Amerks fell to the Comets 5-1 after throwing 41 shots at th Utica net.

“We got the start that we wanted to, but we took too many penalties and our penalty killing didn’t do a very good job tonight,” Taylor said on Saturday. “They had six shots on net in the first and we were down three. That’s tough, but again I like how we bounced back in the second, bounced back in the third. We out-shot them and it was one of our better 60 minutes of hockey.”

In five games this season, Rochester is the second lowest scoring team in the American Hockey League with just nine goals. Three of their nine goals this season have come on the man advantage, but even then the powerplay ranks as one of the lowest units (24th - 10%) in the league. While the Amerks have only given up 15 goals against this season, eighth fewest total in the AHL, it is very difficult to win hockey games if they cannot combat that with some goals of their own. Unlike the Sabres though, Rochester has not given up a shorthanded goal in the first five games.

Rochester has been relatively good on the penalty kill this season, killing off 85.7-percent of their penalties taken while being one of the least penalized teams.

While the team has not scored a whole lot, some of the team's expected goal scorers have not been the ones lighting the lamp. Only C.J. Smith and Justin Bailey have more than one goal this season for the Amerks, but Bailey is now up with the Sabres at the NHL level. Players like Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching have yet to even register a point this season as the team looks to find ways to put up more production.

Smith scored his second goal of the season, and team-leading fourth point, on Saturday night and has, arguably, been on of Rochester's best players to start the year. He scored Rochester's only goal on Saturday as he blazed down the wing, untouched to the net, and then tapped in a nice pass from Steve Moses above the pad of Demko. Smith has exhibited his speed and elusiveness playmaking skills this season, and finished the game on Saturday with three shots on goal.

Fasching has yet to register a point this season, but was, arguably, the Amerks' best player on Saturday night. He finished the night with four shots on goal, dominated in front of the net with his overpowering size and strength, and showed some good speed in both ends of the ice. If Fasching continues to play as hard as he did on Saturday, the goals and points will come.

The lack of production from Baptiste has been a bit concerning to start the year. While he leads the team with 19 shots on goal, Baptiste has otherwise been relatively quiet in all three zones. He did not play with the speed we know he can play with on Saturday, and he did not put up too many good quality scoring chances towards the net. It is one thing to just shoot the puck, but a majority of his chances did not create too many second chance opportunities. Last year's leading goal scorer for the Amerks needs to step up his game as the season moves forward and find more ways to put the puck in the back of the net.

On the blue line, Brendan Guhle continues to make the adjustments needed from a kid transitioning from junior hockey to the pros. Guhle has just one assist and eleven shots on goal up to this point, but continues to show his incredible skating abilities from the blue line.

On Saturday, Guhle was itching to get the puck on a couple of occasions and skate it down the ice on an offensive rush. His defensive play has struggled at times with some missed assignments and a lack of physical play down low. If Guhle can continue to mold his game in Rochester with some hard work and preparation, he should continue to grow in his transition.

Casey Nelson also continues to improve his overall game in Rochester. In his five games this season, Nelson has an assist and has registered nine shots on goal. Nelson is moving well on the blue line, getting the puck from tape-to-tape on a more regular basis, and is looking more solid in the defensive end.

In the net, Ullmark and Wilcox have been performed well outside of this past weekend's debacles on Friday and Saturday. Overall, Ullmark is still playing some sound hockey with a .909 save percentage and 2.79 goals-against average in four games played. Wilcox's stats have looked worse with a 3.42 goals-against and a .875 save percentage in three games.

Where the Amerks are hurting most is the lack of some of their regulars in the lineup due to call ups and injuries.

Players like Bailey, Zach Redmond, Taylor Fedun, Justin Falk and Evan Rodrigues are all in Buffalo at the time being with the Sabres dealing with multiple injuries of their own. Rodrigues and Falk are currently on injured reserve with injuries suffered during the preseason.

Back in Rochester, defenseman Nathan Paetsch is going to be out for a while after suffering a broken bone in his foot. Alex Nylander has been banged up with a lower-body injury that he suffered at the Sabres Prospect Challenge, and has done little to no skating since his injury. There is still no timetable for when Nylander will return to action.

The Amerks are certainly not performing up to the standards they set for themselves to start the season. Getting some healthy bodies back from injury and the big club will help, but the team has to find other ways to compensate for the time being. The team has to find ways to produce on offense while playing sound defensively to help support the play of Ullmark of Wilcox in net.

The Amerks will next play Wednesday night in Laval, Quebec to take on the Rocket, before returning home to host the Rocket on Friday night. Rochester will also play host the Crunch on Saturday night at Blue Cross Arena.