It’s easy to pinpoint the biggest reason the Albany Devils are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Through 28 games, the Devils have allowed just 59 goals.
Not only is Albany third best in the conference in points percentage (.661), which determines standings in the AHL this season, it also is third best in the entire league in team defense, having allowed just 2.09 goals per game.
“Team defense is a huge part of the game, and everybody’s buying in,” Albany defenseman Corbin McPherson said. “They realize the quicker and harder we play defense, the more we get to play offense.”
Only the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (2.06 goals-against average) and the Western Conference’s Ontario Reign (1.89 GAA) have stingier defenses.
The Devils play the Utica Comets (2.54 GAA) tonight at the Times Union Center at 7 and Thursday in Utica at 5 p.m.
McPherson said this year’s Devils don’t necessarily have a different attitude toward team defense than previous squads, but the dedication to it is more prominent.
Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said the Devils’ ability to defend as a group has been a key to the team’s success.
“It’s not just your defense or your low forward,” Kowalsky said. “It’s all five guys. And defending quick and getting the puck back. It’s probably the biggest thing we’ve improved on.”
Kowalsky said the Devils are maintaining possession more, holding onto the puck a little more instead of dumping it into the offensive zone and chasing. McPherson said he and his teammates have developed a comfort level with possession, even in their own zone.
“Even if you’re in the D-zone and you have the puck, you’re better off than chasing the guy with the puck on the opposing team,” McPherson said. “Handling the puck, keeping possession and getting the puck to the forwards helps team defense, which leads to team offense.”
Whenever talking about the team defense, any of the Devils is quick to throw a good amount of praise on the goaltending.
Yann Danis is 14-5-3 with four shutouts, a 2.01 GAA and .919 save percentage. Scott Wedgewood came back from a lengthy rehab after a high-ankle sprain and is 2-1-0 with a 1.78 GAA and .922 save percentage.
“It’s definitely been one of our strengths all year,” Danis said. “They say defense wins hockey games, so it’s been the case for us. Guys are battling hard, playing hard in front of us, taking care of rebounds. In our zone, we’re first on pucks, clearing the front of the net.”
The Devils have been able to translate strong 5-on-5 defense to the penalty kill, too.
Entering Tuesday’s games, Albany had the best penalty kill in the AHL (89.7 percent, 105-for-117).
“We just keep it really simple [on the PK],” McPherson said. “We try to force teams to dump the puck on their entries. And since our retrievals have improved 5-on-5, I think that helps our retrievals in 5-on-4. We try to get the puck back and clear it down, make it hard for their team to get possession in the zone.”
Kowalsky said assistant coach Sergei Brylin took over running the penalty kill, and he’s gotten it to thrive.
Pointing to a stretch from Nov. 25 to Dec. 11 in which Albany won seven straight games, Kowalsky credited the pride taken and physical sacrifices made by the PK unit.
“You take a guy like Rod Pelley and Dan Kelly, they really do take pride in keeping the puck out of our net,” Kowalsky said. “We’ve gotten away from it a little bit here, but when we went through that stretch of seven, we were really good shot blocking and winning battles. Those are little things that don’t show up on the scoresheet.”
“Big time, team pride” McPherson said. “I think we have the right attitude. I don’t think we’re worried about getting scored on. I think we’re more focused on just killing the penalty. When your mind’s in the right place, it’s easier to get things done.”
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