By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
The list of teaching aids used by the Rochester Americans coaching staff is extensive, from video clips and whiteboards to on-ice drills and sessions in the shooting room.
Oh, and Google Translate. At least when it comes to making sure rookie winger Viktor Neuchev fully understands the message.
Playing in North America for the first time, the 20-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, spoke virtually no English when he arrived for the start of the hockey season.
But now, four months into the season, it’s pretty clear Neuchev is grasping not only enough of the language but also the style of play in North America.
Neuchev scored one goal and assisted on two others while veteran linemate Brett Murray scored twice and set up two as the Amerks rolled past the Laval Rocket 7-4 on Saturday evening at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial.
For the Amerks (20-14-3-1), it was the expected rebound after they were blanked 4-0 on home ice Friday by the Utica Comets.
“I fully expected our response to be extremely strong because the guys have now created a higher standard for themselves,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said.
For Neuchev, a third-round draft pick (74th overall) by the Buffalo Sabres in 2022, the production was merely a continuation of his ever-improving play over the past month.
He has piled up four goals, seven assists and 11 points over his past eight games. After having a six-game point streak snapped on Friday, he set up the third and seventh goals (both by Murray) and scored the fifth as the Amerks won for the fourth time in five games.
“He was a stud tonight,” Murray said.
The tangible improvement actually became noticeable starting in November, after the coaching staff made it clear that he needed to do more to earn ice time. And to make sure the true meaning of their message was understood, Appert used Google Translate on his phone.
The app has been used regularly by Apps, including last season with Jiri Kulich and Aleksandr Kisakov, and this year with Neuchev and Nikita Novikov. With Neuchev’s very limited comfort with English, especially early in the season, the tool was invaluable.
“I will type my question or say my question into the phone and it shows up in Russian,” Appert said. “He can read it and then he responds back to me.”
For their heart-to-heart in November, the app was especially important.
“We had a hard meeting with him two months ago about just raising daily standards of habits,” Appert said. “It wasn’t abnormal to have that with a rookie, that’s normal. But that one, because it was a little more difficult, I typed out two different pages of different topics and had it translated to Russian so he could read it.”
Neuchev certainly understood. He has been far more visible, both offensively and in the defensive zone. He is using his blazing speed not only when attacking with the puck but also to create havoc on the forecheck and force hurried passes by defenders.
With that improved play has come more responsibility. On Friday he played on a line with Brendan Warren and Graham Slaggert. That group was expected to create energy far more than they would be relied on to score.
On Saturday, with a day-to-day injury to Brandon Biro forcing a juggling of lines, Neuchev skated with Murray and Jost. They were very much expected to produce offense.
“He’s earned that; he’s earned that with two months of practice habits, daily habits,” Appert said. “The majority of practice days, he probably here from 8 o’clock and 2 o’clock, and working most of the time, not just hanging around watching highlights.
“So it was good to see him get rewarded with a promotion and good to see him take advantage of that.”
Neuchev used his speed to create Murray’s first goal of the game, at 15:16 of the first period. As goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo played the puck behind his net, Neuchev dashed in, stole the goalie’s pass and set up Murray for an empty netter.
That ended Kaskisuo’s night. He stopped just six of 10 shots and was replaced by Strauss Mann.
Murray then returned the favor, sending Neuchev in for a breakaway goal at 13:28 of the second period for a 5-2 lead. Murray was also behind the Laval defense but opted to give the puck to Neuchev.
“He’s got the hot stick right now and he’s a little quicker than I am,” Murray said. “I saw him out of the corner of my eye and he was flying. I figured the ‘D’ might be able to catch me but there was no way they were catching him.”
Another Russian enjoys the night
Novikov, a rookie, has shown plenty of promise on defense but he started to wonder if he would ever score. His first AHL goal came 8:09 into the first period, steering home a perfect Jost pass to the goal mouth.
“It felt very good, I waited so long,” the 20-year-old native of Moscow said.
He also had an assist, giving him 1-12-13 in 32 games.
Former Amerk winger Filip Cederqvist played his first game against his former team. He was traded by the Sabres to the Montreal Canadiens for future considerations on Jan. 11.
“I told him when the trade happened that I fully expected he’d score against us and that I’d have a little smile underneath,” Appert said. “Fortunately we won; I’d probably smile less if it was a loss. But he’s a great kid and I root for all of my players through the rest of their careers and I’ll be rooting for him as well.”