With 27 games left in the regular season every game in Rochester has vital importance. Things are looking very grim, as they are a staggering 10 points out of the playoff picture. The optimism that has come with the successes of Bailey and Rodrigues at the top level is not trickling down to the struggling AHL Affiliate. Instead serving as a ghastly reminder of lost talent in a time of desperation. During back-to-back losses this week, two Amerks stood out.
The first, Erik Burgdoerfer has been setting the tone for the Rochester blue line all year. During his 43 games with the Amerks this year, he has a +3 rating. In many ways +/- can be a misleading stat. In this case the Amerks sit 5th from the bottom in goals against and second to last in winning percentage. Also, of the other five defenseman to play thirty games in Rochester, Brady Austin is closest to him at -6. That gives his +3 a bit more credence.
Burgdoerfer’s game is so complete that it is easy to understand why he compares so favorably to his peers. First, he seldom turns the puck over. His breakout passes are very safe, and he is smart enough to send it up the boards if there is no passing lane. Also, he has been an example of textbook defending on the rush. In almost every opportunity he cuts down the angle for his man and pins him to the glass separating the puck. Several of his teammates have given forwards space to place a low shot or even allowed speedy wingers to glide right past them; But Burgdoerfer has been a constant rock this week.
Maybe the most important aspect of his game has been his defensive awareness in the zone. He is constantly communicating to his partner with his head on a swivel. On his watch, there is never a forward left alone in front of Ullmark. When other defenseman (like Strachan) have been drawn to the point, Burgdoerfer is always where he needs to be; lifting the stick of his man and protecting the crease. His textbook defending has resulted in much more puck possession for the Amerks with him on the ice.
One of the players to take advantage of that has been Cole Schneider. He finally busted out of his post All-Star slump with a goal and two assists this week. Cole opened the scoring for Rochester this week with a top shelf laser on the rush that beat the goalie on his far post. That kind of clinical finishing has been absent from his play recently, and it was good to see him get back on the score sheet. In Syracuse he turned to the role of provider. He registered primary assists on both goals in the Amerks 5-2 loss. In both cases he made beautiful passes to set up open shots in the slot. He has been the catalyst for the top line also featuring Baptiste and O’Reilly. In order for the Amerks to succeed without Bailey, that will need to continue.
Rochester’s dwindling playoff hopes are all but gone at this point as injuries at the NHL level has forced Tim Murray into pulling a number of key contributors out of the Amerks lineup for extended periods. Two of Rochester’s top defensemen (Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk) and now four key forwards (William Carrier, Evan Rodrigues, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste) are with the Sabres, leaving the farm club short on top-end talent for any sort of push.
It spells trouble for any postseason hopes, despite the improved play from Burgdoerfer and Schneider.