Rats' Paiement to return
Not to spoil my Wednesday story too much, but defenseman Jonathan Paiement will be back in the River Rats lineup for their game tomorrow night against Philadelphia at the former Knickerbocker Arena.
Paiement is the first of the four players injured in the team's Feb. 19 bus crash to return to game action. Joe Jensen, Nicolas Blanchard and Casey Borer are all done for the year.
Paiement, who turned 24 during his 22-game absence, received medical clearance yesterday afternoon. Though cuts and bruises to his head, face and hands had healed, he also suffered a concussion which slowed his progress. Paiement returned to regular practice a couple weeks back.
"He's ready to go," coach Jeff Daniels said after practice today. "Obviously, he's missed a lot of time and hasn't skated a lot, but he's excited to get back playing."
Paiement's return gives Albany eight healthy defensemen. He had 12 points (1g, 11a) and was 2-for-3 on shootout attempts in 44 games before being hurt. He has gone 49 days between games.
"I'm pretty glad," he said. "It's been a long time."
Albany (31-39-3-4) may be able to use Paiement's return, and the sight of injured Nicolas Blanchard, Casey Borer and Trevor Gillies on the ice in yellow non-contact sweaters today, as an emotional lift.
The Rats have lost a season-high eight consecutive games, seven in regulation and one in a shootout, since a 2-0 win over Philadelphia on March 22, behind 32 saves from goalie Justin Peters. Albany hasn't gone this long without a victory since dropping 13 in a row (0-11-1-1) from March 17 to April 12, 2006, in the final year of the New Jersey Devils regime.
Blanchard took part in some drills today, while Borer and Gillies came on after formal practice ended.
"These last couple games here, we want to finish strong," Peters said. "For Paiement to come back and to see guys skating again, that's great. It's a big morale boost for the team in here."
After tomorrow, Albany ends the season with games at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday and at home on Saturday, the season finale.
"Losing is not fun," Peters said. "It definitely has been frustrating. At the same time, there's no excuses in here and no reason for anybody to quit. Everybody has something to play for. There's always people watching. Guys like myself, my contract's up. I'm playing for a contract. Coach said the other day before the game that there's 13 guys that don't have contracts next year on this team, so a lot of guys are playing for something."
Another motivating factor for the Rats (aside from staying out of last place; they're tied with Norfolk at 69 points with three games remaining) is that they can have a direct outcome on the East Division playoff race.
Albany plays Philadelphia tomorrow, Wilkes-Barre on Friday and Binghamton on Saturday. The Phantoms have won six games in a row and seven of their last 10 to pass the Senators for the fourth and final playoff spot in the East with 90 points. Binghamton (4-5-0-1 in its last 10) is fifth with 89 points; both teams have three games left.
Wilkes-Barre has points in five straight games and is third in the East with 99 points, three behind Bridgeport. The Penguins have four games left, the Sound Tigers -- who are two points behind first-place Hershey -- have two.
"All three teams will be coming in and bringing their 'A' games," Daniels said. "We've got to be ready for that challenge. It starts tomorrow night with Philadelphia. As we saw last time in Philly, they're playing really well right now. They have a bit of everthing; good size and toughness and they've got some guys up front that are hot right now scoring goals. And as this team's history knows, (goalie Scott) Munroe is a guy that has played well against our team.
"This is a pretty hard-working group. They've shown that. They showed that today in practice. This is a chance to upset some teams in the last three games and kind of disrupt their drive to the playoffs. But, these guys are playing for a lot of things. We've got guys up for contracts. We've got guys with contracts trying to prove they're ready for the next level. These last three games are important for us to finish up on a positive note."
Albany is one of 11 teams that has not had someone named player of the week this season. Jerome Samson was the latest casualty; he had eight points (2g, 6a) and was minus-3 in five games last week. Philadelphia's David Laliberte was given the nod with seven points (6g, 1a) and plus-5 in four games. Four of Laliberte's points (3g, 1a) came in a 6-3 win over the Rats.
The Rats have had one winner in the last 128 weeks and none in 50 since goaltender Michael Leighton was selected on Oct. 28, 2007. Weeks are counted during the regular season, which runs from early October to mid-April.
There was a special guest at practice today. Nathan Gillies, a Union College graduate who played for the Dutchmen from 1999-2003, stopped in to visit older brother Trevor on the way back home.
The younger Gillies, 28, began this season playing for the Sheffield Steelers in England, where he skated with former Union defenseman Randy Dagenais and ex-RPI Engineers Steve Munn and Scott Basiuk. Gillies said he tore some ligaments that kept him out of action for three months and limited him to just 11 games.
After returning to the states and healing up, Gillies finished the season with 11 points (2g, 9a) and 35 penalty minutes in 15 games for the Central League's Rocky Mountain Rage.
A fast, gritty, hard-nosed player -- hmmm, exactly the kind that the Rats could use right about now -- Gillies said he is considering going back to Sheffield next season to earn his MBA, as Munn did this year. It all depends on the offer.
Nathan Gillies attended Rats training camp on tryout in 2006, at the invitation of former coach Tom Rowe, who also gave Trevor his first real AHL shot. Trevor Gillies has been out with a concussion since Dec. 20.
"I remember talking to him around Christmastime, and he was a little out of it," Nathan said. "Now, it's like he's back to himself, so that's good to see."
Samson has points in five straight games (2g, 6a) to quietly take over the team scoring lead from Jakub Petruzalek with 52 points (20g, 32a) in 67 games. Petruzalek has three points (1g, 2a) in his last 13 games, giving him 51 (18g, 33a) in 74 games.
"This is the best I've seen Sammy play," Daniels said. "He's a real force out there right now."
Samson skated today on a line with Ryan Weston at left wing and Cory Quirk at center. Yannick Tifu, who had been on the left side of that line, was instead playing with center Nick Dodge and Petruzalek on the right.
Other line combinations had Brandon Sutter between Tomas Pospisil and Harrison Reed, and Bobby Hughes between Brad Herauf and Pat Dwyer.
Both Dwyer and Herauf are questionable for tomorrow's game. Dwyer has been out since being slashed across the hand March 28 vs. Springfield; Herauf was hurt in a fight with Worcester's Fraser McLaren last Friday in Glens Falls.
"He's a question mark. We'll see how he feels in the morning," Daniels said. "Patty will probably not play tomorrow night. He may be available this weekend, but he's not quite ready yet."
No Dwyer or Herauf would leave the Rats with just 10 forwards, after the team released left wing Aaron Clarke from his pro tryout this week and returned him to ECHL Wheeling.
Clarke was sent back to join the Nailers in time for their Kelly Cup playoff opener in Cincinnati on Thursday. The series continues Friday in Ohio and Saturday in Wheeling.
At the time of his Feb. 26 recall, Clarke was the Nailers' third-leading scorer with 36 points.
"We just felt that he's a big part of their team down there," Daniels said. "It gives him a chance to play in the playoffs. It wasn't what he did wrong, it was more of a situatioin of being the right move to send him back. It didn't make sense for him to play Wednesday night here and then play Thursday, Friday, Saturday. He was good for us. He definitely filled a role."
Clarke had five points (2g, 3a) and was minus-3 in 22 games for Albany, his third AHL team this season. Overall, he had seven points (3g, 4a) and was minus-1 in 32 Triple-A games for the Rats, Binghamton and Providence.
In what is being called a cost-cutting measure, Rats radio play-by-play announcer Owen Newkirk will be laid off by the team, following Saturday's regular-season finale.
Newkirk handled broadcasting and media relations duties for both AHL hockey and af2 football in Albany, and was professional and outstanding in every way. My only fault with him was that he kept passing the puck into my skates during the media game at the AHL all-star festivities in January.
During his two seasons behind the microphone (or inside the headset, as it were), Newkirk established himself as one of the bright young stars in broadcasting. Intelligent, informed and well-spoken, it is a real shame to see him go. On the bright side, I'm pretty sure you'll be hearing (or seeing) him doing NHL games down the road.
When that time comes, I know of a good (if short and bald) color guy he could call ......
Newkirk's predecessor and this season's partner, John Hennessy, will attend Wednesday's game, though he is still under doctor's orders not to return to work. Henny is recovering from injuries suffered both in the bus crash as well a fall at his home last month ..... Cory Quirk has points in three straight games (3g, 1a) and four of five (4g, 1a) since being inserted back in the lineup following Dwyer's injury ..... James van Riemsdyk, the second overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, is scoreless and even with two penalty minutes in his first four pro games for the Phantoms.