It's hockey time
Will there be apprehension as River Rats players and staff board the team bus for the 2 1/2-hour (or so) drive to Bridgeport for Wednesday night's game -- the first since the crash of their Yankee Trails coach late last week?
Of course. Contrary to popular (and antiquated) belief, hockey players are human.
But the focus, particulary in today's practice at the former Knickerbocker Arena, has been on getting back to work.
"Absolutely," Albany assistant coach Geordie Kinnear said. "The guys are raring to get back into battle. They're competitive guys, and they want to get back into that flow."
Albany plays Wednesday night at Bridgeport, then will head directly to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where it plays on Friday. The Rats are in Syracuse on Saturday and return to the old Knick for the first time Sunday afternoon.
"We're excited to get back on the ice," defenseman Mark Flood said. "Even though our lineup's going to be a little bit depleted, I think it's going to be good. Everybody keeps saying that it's going to be good for us to get back into playing games. We've got four in five coming up, and the quicker we get back into our schedule, it'll be good to forget about it and get back on track here."
The quandary the Rats find themselves in is this: While their AHL brethren are sympathetic to Albany's situation, none of them are going to roll over and hand off two standings points. Beaten up mentally and physically, the Rats and their patchwork lineup, don't expect any favors.
"Bridgeport, they feel for us. They experience going on the bus, too," head coach-GM Jeff Daniels said, "but at the same time, when the puck's dropped tomorrownight, they're ready for business. We have to make sure that our mindset is, 'It's going to be hard work, and they're going to come at us hard.' I think the guys know that. It's going to be a simple game; thats' where we're at right now."
"When we hit the ice for warmups, I think it's going to be an exciting time for us," defenseman Bryan Rodney said. "We'll never forget what happened, and obviously we still have a few men down, but to get back on the ice is going to be heightened relief now that we can play games.
"We're not expecting any team to go easy on us. In this league, any team can win on any given night, and every team is still fighting for playoff positioning. For us, we're trying to get into a playoff spot. We're not expecting an easy week, that's for sure. It's a tall order. We're going to have four games in five nights with a less than healthy lineup. It's a challenge that we're going to have to face and embrace, and I think we'll be excited to get back playing games. I don't think we'll have any trouble getting up and being ready. Hopefully, we just play smart hockey."
Not including goaltenders Justin Peters and Daniel Manzato, Albany had only 13 healthy skaters on the ice for practice today: forwards Jerome Samson, Harrison Reed, Dwight Helminen, Jakub Petruzalek, Pat Dwyer, Mike Angelidis, Ryan Weston, Nick Dodge and Brad Herauf, and defensemen Noah Babin, Benn Olson, Rodney and Mark Flood.
Defenseman Brett Carson skated for the second day in a yellow non-contact sweater, and won't play tonight. He is making the road trip, and Daniels said there is an "outside chance" that Carson could dress Saturday or Sunday.
The Rats today called up defenseman Ryan McGinnis from ECHL Florida, and he was expected to arrive this afternoon. Daniels hopes to have more help on the way, but was uncertain if and when and how many, and whether they'd arrive in time to be on the bus, or meet the team in Bridgeport.
Daniels said he got no indication from the Carolina Hurricanes, nor would he even ask for it, whether the parent team would return captain and defenseman Tim Conboy and all-star left wing and leading scorer Michael Ryan to Albany until the health of the team improves. Judging by the Canes record with Conboy in the lineup (5-0-3 this year, 18-4-5 all time), they may never let him go.
"They haven't really talked about it and, to be honest, I'd rather kind of find guys myself," Daniels said. "It wouldn't be fair to those guys. They're up there and they're playing well, and they deserve to be up there. We'll go find guys and we'll make things work down here. I haven't pushed that at all because they deserve to be up there. I don't want to take that away from them."
Herauf, who has been out the last four games with an undisclosed injury, should be ready to go. Trevor Gillies, battling back from a Dec. 20 concussion, wasn't feeling well and got today off. Joe Jensen, one of four players hospitalized following the crash, hasn't been ruled out of playing at some point on the trip.
The Rats still may find themselves with a few holes in the lineup come game time.
"It's definitely a possibility," Daniels said, "but I'm trying to have 20 guys. We won't have any extras other than Carse, who is coming with us but is not playing tomorrow night."
For now, the coaching staff has resisted coming out of retirement to aid the cause. Daniels is 40, Kinnear 35.
"Not yet, but we're close. Ask me after tomorrow night's game and we'll see where we're at," Daniels joked. "I always say Geordie is going first; he's younger than me. We need 'D,' and with Timmy gone and guys like that, he could fill that role. I'm sure he's got some anger built up that he'd like to get out.
"We joke about it, and the guys joke about it, but we're not at that point. We're not that bad yet."
Said Kinnear: "Definitely not. I didn't have to retire (in 2001 for medical reasons), I think this would be the year I retired because my body is just saying, 'No way, fella.' "
Because of the dearth of defensemen, Albany's two veterans, Rodney and Flood, figure to spend a considerable amount of time on the ice.
"They're going to have to lead the way back there," Daniels said. "They're our most experienced guys. They're going to play a lot over the next four games, and they have to be smart and make sure they don't extend their shifts, knowing they're going to play in all situations and play a lot of minutes.
"We're going to be real inexperienced on the back end, so Petey (goalie Justin Peters) is going to have to do a good job of reading the game and slowing things down when we need a whistle, and the forwards are going to have to take some responsibility and make sure they come back and help."
It's Kinnear's job to run the defense, and he and Daniels spoke with Flood and Rodney during practice today.
"They've been here for two years now," Kinnear said. "Where I'm going to lean on those guys is to help the new guys in the lineup to pick up the systems and how I and Jeff expect them to play. That's where you need true leadership, and those guys have been great with that.
"We have a certain style that we want our defensemen to play, and it's different from most other teams. That's where their leadership and their maturity and their veteran experience is really going to shine in the next 10 days probably."
"I look at it as a challenge," Rodney said. "Our teamm, we've got to as a whole step up and take on more responsibility. As a hockey player, you want that. Obviously, you don't want it in this kind of situation, but that's sort of what happened and there's no changing that. We'll just have to do our best to make sure we're ready."
Said Flood: "We've got to bring our 'A' games and at the same time, we've got to be careful not to get caught out there too long, keep our shifts short and not try to do too much, especially in the early games. We know we're going to be playing a lot, so we've just to keep it simple and try to keep the puck out of the middle, stuff like that."
With his two masks destroyed in the bus crash, Peters will be wearing plain white helmet for tonight's game.
"This is one that the Bauer rep just had," Peters said. "It's a mold of my helmet; it's molded to my head. He just carries that around and would show people if he was talking about the product. It just happened to be my helmet. He heard what happened and they got it to me right away, which was nice."
Peters has a new helmet being made and painted, and hopes to have it in the next two weeks. He plans to incorporate the team's bus accident into the design.
"I talked about maybe doing something with the crash," Peters said. "It's going to be a helmet I'm going to have for a while, so maybe I'll do a little something on it. I don't want to (base) the whole thing around it, especially because we've got to move on. We don't always want to have that stuff with us. As far as ideas go, I've been asking around some of the guys. A little figurine of some sort, just something to symbolize it. I'm definitely going to do that. I was talking about doing a tribute, but it's a little much, I think. I think If I had something small that will always remind us of that on there, that would be good."
Among the players on Bridgeport's roster is ex-Rats winger Joel Rechlicz, an understudy of enforcer Trevor Gillies last season. With the team banged up, Gillies out, Conboy in Carolina and Herauf just coming back from an injury, Rechlicz may have a hard time finding a willing combatant.
"It'll be nice," Rechlicz said. "Obviously I'm excited to play against them and play hard. Nobody's a friend out there. They're great guys off the ice, but on the ice, everyone's an enemy. This is my team now.
"It'll be nice to see them. I'm glad everyone's safe and sound, nothing life-threatening. That's the main thing. Nobody's seriously hurt, out for their career."
Here's a sampling of what some other Sound Tigers had to say today (tip of the cap to Mike 'Scoops" Fornabaio):
Head coach Jack Capuano
"After an accident like that, being on the ice is the best thing for that team, to come together and get back to playing hockey again. That's what they love to do. They'll be ready, the coaching staff, the players, from what I know of them. It's an unfortunate situation, what happened, but they'll come together and be ready.
"I can't imagine what took place in that split-second. ... The great thing is nobody was seriously, seriously injured. The one thing I take out of it is everyone's OK."
Defenseman Andrew MacDonald
"Something like that can really bring a team together. They're going to come here and they're going to play for each other. They're even closer as teammates. We expect a really strong effort out of them."
Got any plans for Sunday? Cancel 'em. Don't have any? Now you do. Get to the old Knick and root on the Rats in their first home game since the accident, a 5 p.m. start against Norfolk.
"Obviously, it would be nice to see a great turnout for the game," Daniels said. "One, to get excited for the game, and to also kind of let the players know that they feel for them and that they're behind them. Hopefully, there's a good turnout."
How about great? Why not five figures? The home season high is 7,039 for the Oct. 11 opener.
"There's lots of room out there," Flood said. "We know we're going to have our core fans out there, and hopefully we'll have a lot more. The support we've had is unbelievable. It will be a little bit emotional coming back for our first game, and to see that would be awesome."
Said Rodney: "I haven't thought that far ahead, but we've got a good core group that's supported us even after we won only three of our first 15 games. That's been huge in a time like this. That support is really felt in the room."