Small measure of payback
Last year, the Syracuse Crunch beat the Albany Devils four times in March and April. They ushered the Devils from seventh place in the Eastern Conference to a seat in the stands, out of the playoffs, and they used those wins over Albany to hoist themselves into the Calder Cup playoffs.
No team had more to do with Albany's fall last season than Syracuse, and no team had more to do with the Crunch's postseason berth than the faltering Devils.
Fast forward to Saturday night.
The offseason saw the Norfolk Admirals and Syracuse Crunch exchange NHL affiliates. The Anaheim Ducks prospects that were last year in Syracuse are now in Norfolk. The Tampa Bay Lightning prospects who won the Calder Cup in Norfolk last year are now in Syracuse.
Norfolk, full of players who last season assisted in the Devils collapse, came into Albany on life support and the Devils kicked out the plug with a 2-0 win over the Admirals. Norfolk is now on the outside, looking in. To steal the final playoff berth from Hershey, the Admirals must beat the Eastern Conference's top team, Providence, Sunday afternoon in Rhode Island, then watch the late Hershey game and hope the Manchester Monarchs can beat the Bears in Hershey.
"They were a big part of us not getting in, and they became a tough team to beat down the stretch and made a big run to get in," Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. "I don't want to say it's payback, but if you look at the history of the two franchises ... we'll see what happens to them tomorrow, but this definitely might have put a kink in their plans."
It was the second consecutive night the Devils beat a team that was fighting for a playoff berth. Their win over Connecticut pushed the Whale to the brink of elimination, a job that was finished Saturday when Connecticut lost to Portland.
"The past six periods, those were playoff-type games," Kowalsky said. "They didn't give up much, and we didn't, and both goaltenders played well. Other than the power plays for both teams, and some of the credit for that has to go to both penalty kills, I thought it was a heck of a 60 minutes."
Albany goalie Jeff Frazee was outstanding, making 31 saves for his first shutout this season. The closest the Admirals came to scoring was on a pair of short-handed two-on-one rushes early in the second period.
The first came about three minutes into the second, when Chris Wagner skated the puck through the right circle against Albany defenseman Eric Gelinas as Patrick Maroon came through the left side destined for the back door. Wagner slipped the pass over to Maroon, who had an open net looking back at him, but he sent his shot off the far right post and out of harm's way.
Less than a minute later, with Albany still on the same power play, Maroon skated the puck in on Frazee and tried to tuck it past his left pad, but the netminder kicked the puck back out to keep the game scoreless.
The game's first goal didn't come until 17:27 of the third period, keeping things tense through the later periods as it began to look like the first goal might be the winner. Turns out, it was.
Harri Pesonen, who had two goals Friday night, sent a shot in from the left post, and rookie centerman David Wohlberg skated in on the left side to clean up the rebound.
"The goalie was giving up big rebounds, but they were coming off quick," Wohlberg said. "Luckily, I got a foot on it, tried to go upstairs, kind of whiffed, and went five-hole."
Mike Sislo added an empty-net goal with 15 seconds to play to provide the final margin of victory.
WOHLBERG'S LATE SURGE
Wohlberg has scored all four of his goals in his last 11 games.
"With Wohly, he was in and out of the lineup," Kowalsky said. "Confidence is huge for these young kids. Sometimes they just have to play their way into that confidence. At the beginning of the year, he was a guy who was in and out of the lineup. He's gotten more ice time and a little bit more of a regular shift. He's got talent, he's big, he's got reach, he understands the game on both sides of the puck – offensively and defensively. I think the biggest thing with his is just pace, just going, all of the time. I think some of that comes with confidence. He's playing well right now, and he's one of those guys who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes when things aren't going your way or you're not playing, you want to stay in the lineup, so you try to maybe make that extra play or force that play to get a point or a goal, and it ends up being a turnover and you end up on the bench. Right now, he's confident, but the biggest thing is he's skating and using his size and skill well right now."
"At the start [of the season], I wasn't playing like I should be, and now I'm getting more comfortable," Wohlberg said. "I think that's helping out a lot.
"You've got to go and prove yourself out there, and that's something I wasn't doing day in and day out. You just work to get back in the lineup, and when you get a chance, you've got to stick with it."
No word on who will play in goal for Albany Sunday against Adirondack (Times Union Center, 3 p.m.). Kowalsky could come back with Frazee to support the shutout, he could go with Kinkaid to let the Union product finish out a good second season, or he could get one last look at Scott Wedgewood.
Defenseman, Altamont native and Albany captain Jay Leach was a healthy scratch Saturday, and he remains an option for Sunday's game. Had he played Saturday, he would be playing his 500th AHL game Sunday. Now if he plays Sunday, he'll finish the season at 499, making a return to play next season a virtual necessity. It will also give us writers something non-game related to write about for the season opener next season, if he re-signs with the Devils.
Defenseman Damon Severson also was a healthy scratch, as Kowalsky said he didn't want to drop the 18-year-old into three games in three days right away. I wouldn't be surprised if he plays Sunday, though. Any healthy young player who the Devils want to get a look at could play in this game against Adirondack, which is meaningless except for the fact that winning is more fun than losing.