AHL playoff race runs through Albany
ALBANY With a record of 1-7-1-2 in their last 11 games, the Albany Devils have fallen to 14th in the Eastern Conference with nine games to play.
Oddly enough, they’re still just four points out of the playoffs.
Syracuse holds the eighth and final playoff spot entering today’s games with 71 points in 67 games. Albany has 67 points.
The Devils will play seven of their remaining games at home, which they feel gives them a little advantage.
“We’re so excited right now because a lot of teams who are before us [in the standings] right now have long trips, maybe will lose points to us,” Albany left wing Vladimir Zharkov said. “We play at home. If we win those games, we’ll be in the playoffs, for sure.”
The Devils are 15-9-4-3 at the Times Union Center, where they will host Rochester today at 11:30 a.m. Albany will host Providence on Friday night at 7 and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Six of the Devils’ remaining games are against teams in the hunt for the final three playoff berths. They will play Providence (10th, 69 pts.) twice, Adirondack (ninth, 69 pts.) twice, Worcester (13th, 67 pts.) once and will close the season against Syracuse.
“I think we’re right on the cusp,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “With the way the schedule is situated, we don’t look at another three-in-three until the last week of the season, which is all at home. Everything’s in our favor. We’d like to be a little closer than we are right now, but obviously, it’s still attainable.”
The team has started to come out of its goal-scoring funk, posting six on Worcester last week and three in the second game at Norfolk. In the other games in the last two weeks, the Devils have created more and more chances, but have been unlucky with their shots.
Zharkov has three goals and an assist in his last four games. He is the team’s points-per-game leader (among players with more than four games played) at 0.67. He is second on the team in goals (15), assists (22) and points (37) in fewer games (55) than the leader in each of those categories.
Despite all that, he still understands any success the Devils have had or will have must start in their own zone.
“Yeah, we’re scoring, but right now, we’re still in the playoff race. That’s what we’re thinking about right now,” Zharkov said. “We need to play smart. We can make the playoffs, for sure, if we play like we played in the three last games.
“Don’t think about scoring a lot, keep the focus in the defensive zone.”
The playoff push has to start soon, and there’s no time like the present against a Rochester team that is fighting for a playoff berth in the Western Conference (seventh, 75 pts.). The Americans are 6-2-1-1 in their last 10 games.
Just as Albany is led by a rookie — Joe Whitney with 13 goals and 27 assists for 40 points — the Americans are paced by rookie Phil Varone (9-38-47). Derek Whitmore is their top goal-scorer with 25.
Rochester has won two of the three meetings between the teams this season, including a shutout by goalie Drew MacIntyre.
Although the Devils have been playing better in the last two weeks, they still have won only one game in that time. Kowalsky said better hasn’t been enough, though, and he needs a little more from his guys.
“The guys that are in the lineup, we just need more,” he said. “Finishing checks, blocking shots, hard on pucks, not taking those selfish penalties. Then from the goaltending out, we’re not going to win with individual efforts. We discussed it [Monday].
“We just talked about the importance of the habits and structure, which we’ve talked about all year. Doing it, and doing it every day. Starting [today], we can’t waver from it.”