February slump negated Devils’ good finish

There were a few rough patches this season for the Albany Devils, but it’s really the rough month an
Dan Kelly, left, and Chris McKelvie sit in McKelvie's locker as the Devils pack up their gear at the Times Union Center after the end of the season.
Dan Kelly, left, and Chris McKelvie sit in McKelvie's locker as the Devils pack up their gear at the Times Union Center after the end of the season.

There were a few rough patches this season for the Albany Devils, but it’s really the rough month and inconsistent scoring that sunk them.

After reaching the Calder Cup playoffs last year and starting this season with a 6-0-0-1 October, the Albany Devils looked like a team with postseason potential.

They fought through inj­uries and mumps the next couple of months, finishing both November and December just under .500, then rebounded with a good January.

A 2-8-0-0 record in February, thanks in large part to a scoring drought, put the Devils in too deep a hole to climb out of, even after going 13-5-1-1 in the 20 games since March 1.

“We ran into that stretch in February, which probably will be the one thing we point to, as far as not getting any results,” said Albany general manager Chris Lamoriello said Sunday. “Whether we deserved them or not, we didn’t get any. Then at the end, here, I don’t think we could have asked any more out of the coaches or the players. We left the building yesterday, we were in the playoffs. Somebody had to knock us out, and they did.”

A win over Hartford on Saturday left Albany in the eighth and final playoff spot, but later that night, Springfield won in overtime to pass Alb­any. Portland won later still, then won again on Sunday to pass both teams and claim the final berth.

Albany finished 37-28-5-6 with 85 standings points, two behind Portland and one behind Springfield.

“Game 20, I remember telling the guys,” Albany captain Rod Pelley said, “I still remember this day, ‘These games count. These two points matter just the same as they do in Game 75.’ It’s a process, and it’s a long season, but that’s the truth to it.”

It was Games 47-56 that hurt most. In those 10 games in February, Albany scored 21 goals and allowed 36. The Devils finished the season with 199 goals for and 201 against.

“I think we had enough [scoring opportunities], but for whatever reasons, we weren’t able to convert on those nights when we did outchance or outshoot people,” Lamoriello said. “There’s no question, this year, we felt we had a good mix of offensive players in different categories, whether it was passing or shooting, we thought we had some capable people on the blue line, and I think you saw some individual moves forward with some of that. I thought we saw some collective moves forward.

“I think our goal differential is minus-2 as we sit after 76 games. That’s got to change. . . . We’ve got to find a way to make that a plus, and a double-digit plus.”

“I think there’s no question we had a real stretch where the offense dried up,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “Some of the guys we needed to score, didn’t. They know it. It was unfortunate. We had a lot, even down the stretch here, with the exception of the Binghamton game, which ended up being a 6-3 game, in the last 20 games, all the losses were one-goal games.”

The bright spots on the scoresheet for Albany was the play of Joe Whitney, Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo.

In his fourth year as a pro, Whitney led the Devils in points for the fourth season with 23 goals and 37 assists in 66 games. He had three goals and four assists in Albany’s last three games to earn the AHL’s player of the week award and help Albany finish on a four-game point streak.

Thompson was an offseason acquisition signed to an AHL contract. He earned a spot in the top six and scored 33 goals, second most in the AHL this season behind Grand Rapids’ Teemu Pulkkinen. Thompson also had 22 assists in his 73 games. He and Whitney were huge on the power play. Whitney tied for the league lead in power-play points with 27 (eight goals, 19 assists), and Thompson had 13 power-play goals and eight assists.

Sislo finished with 20 goals and 20 assists on the season in 65 games, nine goals and 13 assists coming on the power play.

A pleasant surprise came late in the season when Albany signed Brown University’s Matt Lorito to an amateur tryout contract (and an AHL deal for next season). Lorito posted 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 11 games.

“Moving forward, the addition of a guy like Matt Lorito, who obviously showed us some things — mind you, it was only a 10-game sample size, but there’s no question he’s got some talent,” Kowalsky said. “I think each guy wants to improve. The addition of Paul Thompson goes without saying. They compliment the Joe Whitneys, the Sislos, the Bouchers.”

In the offseason, Lamoriello will look around and see if he can find another player like Thompson, who wasn’t being used as a top-line guy, but had the talent, given the opportunity.

“If you know of another one, let me know,” Lamoriello said. “We’ll jump on that right away. Things just worked out really well for him, and us.”

Defenseman Raman Hrabarenka started the season on an all-star pace, but he was knocked out of action on a blind-side backcheck from Utica’s Darren Archibald in late November. When he returned, he continued on a strong pace and finished with nine goals and 18 assists in 47 games, with a plus-2 rating.

Defenseman Seth Helgeson played 22 games this season with New Jersey (two assists, plus-4), and turned in another strong year with Albany (2-10-12 in 49 games, plus-3).

One of the most refreshing developments, though, was the late-season play of Stefan Matteau, as the 21-year-old started playing more like a man his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds). From late February through early March, he had a stretch of six games with a point (4-2-6). He was soon after recalled to New Jersey for seven games, then returned for the last four games with Albany, registering a point in each of them (3-1-4).

“Matteau, I think, has taken steps in the right direction,” Kowalsky said, “and really in the last month prior to being recalled, then what I saw from some of his games in the NHL, and how he played these last four games, it doesn’t look like he belongs in this league.”

On Monday, Matteau was named to the U.S. men’s national team which will compete in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in the Czech Republic from May 1-17.

The regular goalies were reliable most of the season, Scott Wedgewood going 13-14-6 with a 2.74 goals-against average and .903 save percentage, and Scott Clemmensen going 12-11-2 with a 2.23 GAA and .918 save percentage.

The Devils added a couple of new assistant coaches this season in David Cunniff, who worked with the defensemen, and goalie coach Johan Hedberg. Both Kowalsky and Lamoriello said they like the way the two additions worked with Kowalsky and assistant Sergei Brylin. Whether the same group returns will be determined later this offseason.

Also on the back burner is whether the Devils will be back in Albany. Their contract with the Times Union Center has run its course, but they have been in negotiations for a possible return.

“Right now, the biggest thing is collecting our thoughts and reflecting upon the season, as it finished last night,” Lamoriello said. “At the appropriate time, we’ll have an announcement on that situation. But right now, we’re status quo as far as where we’ve been at with that all this year. At the appropriate time, there’ll be an announcement.”

Wherever they land, Pelley thinks the way the team closed its season will give it some momentum heading into the fall.

“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be today,” Pelley said. “We set a goal at the beginning of the year and fell short of it. So that’s a little bit disappointing,

“Looking at the last stretch, here, as a player, I’m very proud of the way the rest of the team played. We could have easily thrown in the towel over a month ago, and we did not. I think it shows a great amount of character, and I’m very pleased with how we responded to a bit of adversity. It’s something to build on for next year.”

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