If there was one player that would inject some positive, yet veteran influence on a team meandering around at the bottom of the league, it would have to come from forward Jason Akeson, as he returns in his second stint for the Binghamton Senators with a new contract in place signed over a month ago.
Since his arrival in early Dec, the BSens has become a playoff contender out of no where and his counterpart Phil Varone, has equally been a force while encompassing in one of his finest offensive seasons to date.
Here’s some proof to back up my claims, in the latest example that has exemplified how well the two have worked so well together lately.
The scene, last Saturday night’s thriller with time running out in the third period and the Senators behind by a goal to the Springfield Thunderbirds. A full push was in beast mode with the T-birds back on their heels, as goaltender Mike McKenna was doing his best in thwarting the attack. With the home crowd behind them, Akeson let loose a long, but accurate wrist shot from about 30 feet out to send the game into overtime much to the delight of not only the fans, but the bench as well.
But that would be just the beginning. What happened next in OT was even more spectacular.
Binghamton was granted a power play with a too many men call on the opposition. Akeson, Varone, Francis Perron and Chad Nehring were called upon with time running out once again, this time in the extra frame.
After the faceoff, Varone took his spot by the far circle and Perron was parked across the way high near the slot. Akeson was at the point near Perron and set the Thunderbirds in motion with his cross ice pass to Varone, who then quickly returned the puck across to Perron, and the table was set as he sent a blistering, one-timer that handcuffed McKenna for the game winner with 00:16.9 left in overtime.
It was a poetic blend of threading the needle with the game on the line between Akeson and Varone as they both were able to masterfully pull it off with Perron’s snipe in the end. Without a doubt, the most exciting victory of the season to date.
There is this dynamic, yet lethal combo of Akeson and Varone with the team fighting for that ultimate playoff contention within the division during a recent climb in the standings. Both have played on the special teams and are reliable, honed in when the game is on the line.
When describing the similarities between the two it’s quite alarming, really. Both are 26-years-old and are 5’10”. Both weigh around 190 lbs. and faced one another throughout their playing days in the OHL and were once teammates for the Kitchener Rangers back in the 2007-’08 season. They have now come full circle, as the two forwards are once again reunited for the second time around in Binghamton.
At the AHL level, they are proven players. Akeson has NHL hands and vision. Varone, NHL intensity and excitement. However, size has been an unfortunately deterrent for both to maintain at a regular basis at the next level.
Before Akeson’s arrival, Binghamton was meandering around with a 5-11-1-1 record and at the bottom of the league and Varone was up and down briefly for Ottawa. Since the two have been reunited, the BSens have a 13-8-1-0 record. In the 2nd Quarter Grades report Akeson scored a 88.71 while Varone had a 91. Perhaps a higher mark will be required in the third quarter if they continue with this pace.
In looking back, Varone, a native out of Vaughan, ONT was a 5th round draft choice by the San Jose Sharks in 2009 while Akeson, a native out of Orleans, ONT was an undrafted signee for the Philadelphia Flyers back in 2011. Akeson played in four seasons for the Kitchener Rangers (2007-’11) while Varone played five years in the OHL for the same Kitchener Rangers, along with the London Knights and Erie Otters where he amassed 33 goals, 48 assists in 55 games in the 2010-’11 season, all career highs at the time.
Akeson played in 265 AHL games for the Phantoms before joining the Buffalo Sabres organization where he had 8g, 22a in 52 games for Rochester before the seven player trade took place between Rochester and Binghamton early in the spring of 2016 that also sent Varone and defenseman Jerome Leduc to Binghamton for forwards Alex Guptil, Eric O’Dell, Cole Schneider and defenseman Michael Sdao along with a 2016, 7th round pick.
Varone was a fixture at the time in Rochester having played in 262 games over the course of four years as he played his entire pro career in the Buffalo Sabres organization and made his debut during the 2011-’12 season where he scored 11 goals and 41 assists in 76 games for the Amerks.
Varone was signed over the off season by Ottawa while Akeson sent sails over the pond playing in the KHL for the Vladivostok Admirals. In 17 games, he had one goal and three assists, which was way off his career average of a point per game. Soon afterwards he left and was picked off waivers and signed by Binghamton for the remaining 2016-’17 season.
Since his first game back on Dec 2nd, Akeson has contributed 4g, 14a in 22 games while Varone had 9g, 9a despite missing three games for a combined total of 13 goals and 23 assists between the two forwards on a team that is currently ranked 24th in the league with 101 goals in 40 outings. During the Senators’ current three game win streak, the two have combined for five goals and seven assists.
However, if there is something worth noting that stirs the fanbase about Varone, it’s that certain swag about him that perhaps rubs off on you the wrong way. Doesn’t hustle when he goes for that certain line change, his body language sometimes gives off an attitude of sorts like be doesn’t belong in the AHL, lacks some intensity on certain situations on the special teams and doesn’t work hard at times. Just the opposite of Akeson, as he works hard but not enough to remain standing as he often gets knocked to the ice when puck-handling, some accuse him of being a puck hog, and doesn’t shoot enough. (This concludes the Debbie Downer segment of this piece)
Even though it’s been a no real secret in Varone’s desire to return to Ottawa, he has worked his way in being the best offensive threat this team has. In 34 games, Varone has 12g, 17a which leads the team in assists and points. And since Akeson’s arrival, the club has turned what looked to be a dismal season, into a playoff contender in the North Division. Akeson with his skill set, has all the tools to be the ultimate playmaker he’s become with his seamless passing abilities. Varone on the other hand, is a pure goal scorer, as the two fit like a hand in glove.
Coach Kurt Kleinendorst apparently likes to pass the talent around, as rookie Jack Rodewald was riding side saddle on the top line with the two until last Saturday night when he was replaced by another rookie in Alex Krushelnyski. It wouldn’t matter though, as Rodewald scored his team leading 13th of the season on the third line. Krush was a non-factor.
Varone is one of the most intense players I’ve seen in some time as his will to produce is exemplified with his goal celebrations and fist pumps followed by a courageous roar that could be heard throughout some of the rinks around the league. Only other player that handles the celly better imo is Max McCormick with his arms extended high in the air whether or not he contributes on a goal.
During this modest three game win streak, both had contributed in the overtime win on Saturday. In the previous night in Syracuse, Varone had four points in a 4-2 Sens win and Akeson had three assists last Sunday in Hershey with another 4-2 victory that helped the Senators in the hunt for the post-season, as they have come out on top with victories in the last eight out of ten games.
Let’s see if they can lead the Senators to their fourth straight win tonight when they visit Allentown, PA to take on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Go Sens Go!
~ Coming up in next week’s Bingo Bites, rookie forward Francis Perron and his ongoing development and what’s in store for the future.