When Oskar Osala came to Albany from Hershey in a trade at the beginning of March, the big forward and defenseman Zack FitzGerald fast became friends.
It wasn’t always that way, as the two squared off for six games in the Calder Cup Finals last season, FitzGerald with Manitoba and Osala with the victorious Hershey Bears. Now as teammates, though, they are focused on using what they learned to extend the River Rats’ playoff run.
“I had some hard battles against him in the corners last year,” Osala said. “He’s a good player, and I look forward to going to war with him, together this time.”
The 42-28-3-5 River Rats still don’t know who they will face in the first game of the divisional semifinals Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Times Union Center, but they will get a possible playoff preview tonight. Albany will play at 39-33-2-3 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at 7 before heading to Glens Falls to face 32-39-3-4 Adirondack in the regular-season finale Saturday night at 7.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the most likely opponent for Albany in the first round. The River Rats are 2-4-0-1 against the Penguins, 0-2-0-1 in Wilkes-Barre. They are 9-1-1-0 against the Phantoms, 5-0-0-0 in Glens Falls.
The two remaining games are meaningless, as far as Albany’s playoff position is concerned, so coach Jeff Daniels said the River Rats will concentrate on maintaining good habits in preparation for the postseason.
Once in the playoffs, the message will be all about keeping a level head and consistency. It’s the same approach the River Rats have taken for the last handful of games.
“Getting ready for games in the last couple weeks, it’s been kind of a playoff mentality. For the most part, the key is to stay on an even, consistent keel,” FitzGerald said. “Not getting too high on yourselves, not getting too low. Just sticking to what we’ve been learning all year and playing the system.”
“Even keel” comes up a lot when talking to guys who have played deep into the postseason. It seems it’s the only way to survive.
“When the finals start, you’re so physically tired, but mentally, so excited,” Osala said. “It’s a weird feeling. You don’t practice that hard anymore. It’s all about the games and recovery.”
Daniels said having a pair of players who skated in the finals last season is a big help. To have someone who felt the joy of winning, and someone who felt the heartbreak of getting to the finals and losing, gives the River Rats a lot of experience to draw on.
“They know what it takes to get there,” he said. “The sacrifice, the way you have to play, both at home and on the road. Fitz is another example from the other end of it. He knows what it feels like when you come up short. It’s an awful feeling.”
The postseason included, both Hershey and Manitoba played 102 games last season. The finals ended in Game 6 on June 12.
Extending the season that long was an experience FitzGerald and Osala have called surreal, weird and magical. As hard as it is to explain the feeling, they will try to show their teammates in Albany it’s worth all the extra work.
“We played till June 12th, and you really get to know your teammates in that time, experience things as a team and you know how rewarding it can be,” FitzGerald said. “We want to project that to the guys and let them know how much fun it can be.”
Forward Stefan Chaput (arm) will not be an option this weekend and Daniels said it is too early to tell if he will be available Wednesday. He continues to skate during practice in a yellow (no contact) jersey. . . .
Rookie goalie Mike Murphy (hand) is ready to go, Daniels said, but he was unsure when he would next see game action. . . .
Goalie Justin Pogge continues to practice and Daniels said he is getting better every day, he is unlikely for this weekend.