The bus ride from Binghamton, New York to Norfolk, Virginia is 8.5 hours. Throw in some requisite stops for coffee and snacks and the trip could easily take over ten. So, for players like Silfverberg and perhaps Zibanejad, Borowiecki, Hoffman and Benoit, the trek was surely another reminder of how life in the AHL is something to contrast with the charter flights of the NHL. Still, they're playing professional hockey, so they can endure the coach ride.
The back-to-back fixtures were games four and five of a six-game road trip that will have taken the B-Sens through Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the latter three of which will be important states in the US Presidential Election (it's a law that one has to mention the election on every page of the internet today).
Binghamton started the season strong, winning their first two, both of which were close games. Since then, they've struggled somewhat. They dropped two of their next three in one hectic weekend and have split the last two weekends, going perfectly .500 on their way to a 4-4-1 record on the season.
The trip to Norfolk this past weekend was not just a long one, but an opportunity to make up for a very poor record against the Admirals last season. In eight meetings, the B-Sens were able to manage only one victory. Though it was not yet apparent, the two team's first meeting of the season, a 7-0 drubbing by the Admirals, was a harbinger of things to come-- for both teams. In fairness to the maligned B-Sens of yesteryear, the Norfolk Admirals were a remarkably good team. In fact, they were record-breaking good. They set a North American professional hockey record of 28 straight wins heading into the playoffs. For a recent NHL comparison, the New Jersey Devils in 2005/2006 won 15 straight, including a first round sweep of the New York Rangers. However, in game one of the Conference Semi-Finals, the Hurricanes ended the Devils' run with authority, handing them a 6-0 spirit-dampening loss before beating them in five on their way to a Stanley Cup. Norfolk's momentum wasn't quelled by one loss. They went on to win a Calder Cup.
However, if the Binghamton Senators are a fairly different group from last year, the Norfolk Admirals are a completely changed team. Literally. They're a different team. The Calder Cup-winning bunch were affiliates of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning are now in Syracuse and the Ducks have taken over in Norfolk. This version is pretty good, though. Norfolk was 4-0 at home heading into Friday night, before Binghamton ruined the run. So, the Norfolk Admirals are still there and are technically reigning champions, but the players that got them there are in large part playing in upper New York state. Only in the AHL. Or the ECHL, I suppose.
- The Powerplay: Okay, so this probably deserves a little more nuance than straightforward 'hero' status. The powerplay is successful (it has five goals on the year) when the unit works the puck in deep and sets up. Luke Richardson has his talented offensive weapons clicking well together on the powerplay. They move it fluidly from the corner back up to the point, drawing defenders in before smoothly playing the puck to a teammate with an open shooting lane. However, when they try to skate it in, it too often leads to a turnover and an easy clear for the penalty killers. That isn't just good ol' fashioned "dump it in" critique, one strategy has worked and one has not. They move it around the perimeter like clockwork and don't need to worry about creating magic at the blueline.
- The Penalty Kill: Nearly as many short-handed goals (four) as they have on the powerplay? Of course that deserves a shout-out.
- Andre Benoit: Tim Murray spoke glowingly of Benoit's contribution to the Calder Cup Champions in 2010, and having seen what happens in his absence and what he has done so far this season, it's clear Murray was speaking words of truth. Benoit has been a true number one defender for Binghamton, especially in the absence of Jared Cowen. Not only is he currently tied for the team lead with five points, but his 29 shots on goal are third on the team. A little more on that slightly unsettling number later. With his two-way skill, it would seem Murray was doing more than just paying lip service when he suggested Benoit could compete for an NHL roster spot. Of course, the B-Sens are paying a tall price for the service (300k at the AHL level). But then, who really cares?
- Tyler Eckford: With four points on the year, Eckford is another two-way talent who has shone under Richardson. He's elusive and has a fairly wicked shot-- and one of those short-handed tallies.
- Patrick Wiercioch: This is an important year for the University of Denver product. He'll be in it tight to win a roster spot, especially since he's a natural fit for a coveted top-four defender's job. In a tight game Friday night, Wiercioch made a good read and pinched in from the point to score the game-winning goal. Wiercioch needs to show he's capable of doing this plenty, without getting caught on the wrong side of too many odd-man rushes the other way.
- Robin Lehner: After a rocky year last season, he has stepped up this year, albeit through only a small sample size. Lehner is 4-2 with a .933 save percentage and a goals-against-average just the slightest shade under two (1.99). Lehner has looked confident and has shown off his high-level skills when playing the puck. He is going to share time no matter how Bishop's season turns out, if only because it's a necessity of the grueling AHL schedule.
- Mike Hoffman: With a well-rounded skill set, Hoffman has been the offensive leader of this team. He plays in all situations for Coach Ricahrdson and is noticeable on almost all his shifts. He's been a standout and has been making the players around him better. Pretty much all you can ask for.
- David Dziurzynski: Hard on the forecheck with a nose for the net, Dziurzynski has emerged from the fringes to become an important contributor. Though he failed to consistently put up points in seasons past, Dziurzynski was always noticeable on the ice. This season, surrounded by talent, Dziurzynski seems to have embraced the opportunity to make a name for himself.
- Hugh Jessiman: With a well-balanced blend of physicality and offensive production, Jessiman has been a standout for the B-Sens so far this year. He scored a great top shelf goal on Friday night, and has been a constant presence on the forecheck.
- The "Elite Prospects": It's worth reiterating that there is a very small sample size to work with-- nine games, to be exact. Still, the AHL calendar is on its second month and some of the big 'names' in the system have yet to step up in a big way. Jakob Silfverberg has looked good at times, exhibiting flashes of his terrific offensive instincts and ability, but it has hardly been the production of the very highly touted champion out of Elitserien. Silfverberg deserves an opportunity to transition into the league, and he does lead the team in shots at 34. But he only played one preseason game, feeding expectations that this second-round gem didn't need much time to hone his NHL skills. Mark Stone has put up four assists on the year, but has been largely invisible on too many nights (oh right-- he's missed the last five). Mika Zibanejad has put 24 shots on goal this season, but has only three assists to show for his effort. His production has to pick up. Considering the high expectations facing this group, it's notable that my (entirely subjective) group of heroes don't include many of the players we expect to be Sens Heroes in years coming. Yet, if there is a silver lining to take from these struggles, it is that they are happening comparatively quietly in the AHL, not under an NHL media microscope.
- Andre Petersson: He had an impressive rookie year, but has not made much of an impact this season. He still makes eye-popping offensive plays at times, but perhaps not often enough and they aren't finding the back of the net.
- Ben Bishop: Tough start to the year. Have to stop more pucks, I suppose. Bishop isn't a rookie, and two rough starts does not a season make. He will have many more chances.