By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
The Rochester Americans modest three-game winning streak came to an abrupt end on Friday night when they were shut out 4-0 by goalie Isaac Poulter and the Utica Comets.
The Comets ramped up the physicality and the Amerks weren’t able to counter, and when Ryan Scmeltzer and Joe Gambardella scored in a nine-minute stretch of the first and second periods, it was essentially ballgame.
“You let them get a lead, they’re a really good defensive team,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said, “so now you’re chasing it.”
And it’s difficult to chase when you’re continually get bashed, harassed and hounded.
“They had a little more nastiness around the nets, which is always a difference-maker,” said Appert, whose club outshot Utica 32-25 but fell to 19-14-3-1. “I thought their ‘D’ in particular were extremely physical against our forwards, and then Poulter made some really, really tough saves in traffic.”
The Amerks thought they had started a rally 3:16 into the third period when Brendan Warren charged to the crease and had a Mason Jobst rebound carom into the net off his right skate. The apparent goal cut the Utica lead to 2-1.
But referees Andrew Bell and Alex Lepkowski opted to review the play and ruled Warren kicked the puck in. Appert and Warren, of course, both disagreed.
“I didn’t intentionally do anything,” Warren said.
Said Appert: “He’s cross-checked from behind in the crease. He’s trying to catch his balance, so the forward momentum of the skate technically kicks it in. But when you’re being cross-checked from behind, you’re trying to catch yourself.
“It’s just a difference of opinion. I respect their call. I disagree with it, but I respect it.”
Instead of a one-goal game and an energized crowd of 5,774 at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, the Amerks mounted little sustained pressure the rest of the way.
“I think it was an important part of the game,” Warren said.
Another very important part: special teams. The Amerks power play was powerless, going 0-for-3, while the Comets scored on their only power play.
“Their penalty kill dominated our power play,” Appert said. “They pressure and you have to move the puck. Mentally the guys have to make adjustments. When you’re playing a pressure penalty kill, you cannot worry about your position, you can’t worry about set plays. You just have to simply play hockey and move the puck around to solve their pressure.
“If you do that for 20 or 30 seconds, they’re going to be tired from over-pressuring and you’re going to have plenty of plays open up.”
Not that the Amerks ability to adjust on the fly was all that good at any point in the game.
“Our decision making with the puck was poor,” Appert said. “It was poor on the power play and it was poor five-on-five.”
Warren was his usual gritty self.
On a team that has an abundance of skilled forwards, Warren is the old-school grit, although he has been producing points as well. Limited to just 12 games because of injury, he has four goals and an assist.
“Warren is one of our best forecheckers, he’s one of our most physical players, he’s a strong penalty killer, he blocks shots,” Appert said. “He does all the dirty, hard things to help you win games.”
So another player or two of Warren’s ilk on the roster might be nice?
“It would be a luxury maybe to have a few more of them,” Appert said, “but maybe it’s a good forcing function for those young, skilled prospects to have to get to the inside to help us win.
“Brandon Biro has grown that side of his game dramatically,” Appert said. “So has (Lukas) Rousek. So have Kulie and Rosie (Isak Rosen). All those guys have grown the grit, edge style to their game, and they have to do those things to end up being NHL players.”
Kulich slump continues
Kulich continues to lead the Amerks in goals, even though he hasn’t found the net in six games since his return from the World Junior Championship.
The six-game drought is his longest since January of last season. Over his final 30 games of last year season and his first 23 games of this season, the 19-year-old winger scored 33 goals. Include the 12 playoff games when he scored seven times and that’s 40 goals in his previous 65 games.
He did have four shots on goal on Friday, which matched his high since his return.
“He’s emotionally fatigued a bit right now,” Appert said. “I do think there’s an emotional fatigue factor in playing as much as he’s played, not have Christmas break (because of the WJC), the emotional toll of a tournament of that magnitude that he’s going to have to get over as we move forward.”
Time for AHL to join the 21st century?
For reasons that can’t possibly be justified, AHL referees still do not have a microphone to explain calls (as is custom in the NHL).
So, because neither Bell nor Lepkowski told the timekeeper’s table why they disallowed Warren’s apparent goal, the crowd was forced to guess. Or just wonder.
Shutout isn’t a rarity
The Amerks have been blanked three times through 37 games. The previous two occurred in game-to-back games: 6-0 at Utica on Nov. 11 and 2-0 at Cleveland on Nov. 16.
The last time they were shut out on home ice was by Springfield’s Joel Hofer on Feb. 10.