By TODD ETSHMAN
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – It was a night of firsts for the Amerks on Military Appreciation Night at Blue Cross Arena.
After a 4-2 victory over the Hartford Wolf Pack, it’s the first time the Amerks have started a season 9-4-1-1 in years. It was the first time the Amerks have faced the Wolf Pack this season. It was the first game of the year for injured Amerk forwards Alex Nylander and Evan Rodrigues. It was also the first AHL game of the year for ECHL defensemen, Arvin Atwal and Eric Knodel, here to fill in for a depleted defensive corps.
C.J. Smith had a four-point night to lead the team offensively. The slick passing winger got things started for the military clad Amerks at the 7:09 mark with a pass to Hudson Fasching that hit off a skate and got behind Wolf Pack goalie, Alexander Georgiev.
Just 2:20 later, defenseman Brendan Guhle’s long blast through traffic found the net and gave the Amerks a 2-0 lead.
The lead could have been more since the Amerks hit two goal posts in the period.
Defenseman John Gilmour got the Wolf Pack back in it early in the second period with a power play tally but Smith restored the Amerks two goal lead with a power play marker of his own at 14:44. Nylander assisted on the goal for his first point of the season.
“There’s been a couple games where I had chances so it was nice to finally put one in,” Smith said referring to one or both of his goals on the night.
He also assisted on Guhle’s goal and Hudson Fasching’s 3rd period empty netter to seal the win.
“C.J. Smith does the little things quietly. We count on him a lot,” said head coach, Chris Taylor. “He’s good around the net, he’s crafty, a good passer. He got rewarded tonight.”
Atwal ingratiated himself to his new coach by coming to the defense of Nylander late in the third period when he was hit hard in the Amerks zone by former Amerk, Dan Catenacci, who got a charging penalty for the hit as well as a fighting major with Atwal.
“I loved that, guys sticking up for teammates,” said Taylor. “That’s what it’s all about. Nobody hits one of our family members. I enjoy him (Catenacci) as a player but not tonight.”
If there is any aspect of the Amerks game that needs improvement it could be the inability to put teams away. The Wolf Pack outshot the Amerks, 16-5 in the 3rd period and got within one with 29 seconds left before Fasching’s empty netter.
As Taylor pointed out, it takes a good goaltender to get all the points the Amerks have been piling up lately and Linus Ullmark was his usual strong self in stopping 36 Hartford shots on the night.
The media skipped Ullmark on yet another busy night for him but he could be heard in the background telling Smith not to screw up the post game interview.
With the win, the Amerks are now 7-1-1-1 in their last ten games. The team heads to Binghamton on Saturday to try to add to their recent success. Another key forward, Justin Bailey, could be ready to add his considerable skills back in the lineup versus the Devils.
As Evan Rodrigues said: “The guys care about the team. They put the team first. When you have that throughout your lineup, you’re going to win games.”