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River Rats can’t afford misstep in heated divisional race

River Rats can’t afford misstep in heated divisional race

The Albany River Rats face key road games in their quest for an AHL playoff berth

Recent mild weather aside, it can get hot in January.

The Albany River Rats, along with most of the AHL’s East Div­ision, are finding that out.

No division in the league is more tightly bunched than the East, where 13 points separate first place from sixth.

For now, the Rats sit squarely in the middle, their 50 points good for fourth place, the division’s last playoff spot.

“Everybody in our division seems to just keep winning,”Albany head coach-GM Tom Rowe said, “so you can’t afford to go on much of a losing streak.”

Indeed, not with resurgent Binghamton (49 points) and Bridgeport (45) right behind. Meanwhile, the Rats (24-20-0-2) are only a point behind Hershey in third and two in back of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in second. Philadelphia leads the East with 58 points.

“It’s nice when it’s like that,” defenseman Tim Conboy said. “I think last year there were three teams ahead of us pretty much all year by, like, 10 points. We were just kind of fighting for that last spot. It’s nice having the division open, top to bottom. We can still finish first.”

To do that, the Rats need to continue winning divisional games, such as the pair they face on the road this weekend, playing at Norfolk tonight and Saturday, prior to the AHL all-star break.

Norfolk (13-27-1-3) has won two straight, but is last in the East with 30 points, fewest points in the conference and second least overall. Rochester, which has lost 22 of its last 23 games, has 29 points.

“We need four points, that’s for sure,” left wing Brandon Nolan said. “Norfolk’s out of it and they’re trying to get back in, and you want to keep teams down and separate yourself. We want four points.”

Albany is 2-0-0-1 against the Admirals this season, losing a shootout Oct. 13 in its home opener. The Rats won by scores of 7-0 and 4-3

Nov. 28 and 30, also at home.

“We always say, ‘Respect everybody, fear nobody,’ ” Conboy said. “It doesn’t matter what a team’s

record is. Every team in this league from top to bottom is good on any given night. You’ve always got to bring your best.”

Norfolk has proved that recently, beating Wilkes-Barre, 4-0, on

Jan. 19 and edging Hershey, 3-2, in a shootout Wednesday night.

No AHL team has played more than Albany’s 46 games, meaning every team in its division has from one to four games in hand.

“Every win counts and every loss counts right now,” Rats all-star goaltender Michael Leighton said. Leighton played parts of his first four pro seasons for the Admirals, then affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks, from 2001-05.

“Usually around this time, teams start separating themselves. It seems like we’re all clustered up,” he said. “It’s going to be tough.You’ve got to win your divisional games when you get the chance. If you lose them, you’ve got to make sure you win the next couple. These are def­initely big points for us.”

Norfolk is 2-7-0-1 in its last 10 games at The Scope, Wednesday’s win snapping a four-game home losing streak.

“Playing in Norfolk’s always difficult, regardless of what their record is,” Rowe said. “They’ve come out hard against us in some of the games. They’re going to want to have a good showing before the all-star break.”

NOTEBOOK

Defenseman Mark Flood was a healthy scratch Wednesday. On a two-game assist streak (0-2-2), Flood had missed only one of the previous 31 games, on Dec. 14, part of the flu bug that swept through the team. . . . Defenseman Bryan Rodney replaced Flood in the lineup. . . .

Altamont native Jay Leach has one point, a Dec. 8 assist against Wilkes-Barre, in his last 21 games. The defenseman is 3-3-6 with a team-high plus-5 rating in 41 games for the Admirals. . . .

Rowe said left wing Ryan Bayda, out since Dec. 14 with a concussion, is progressing and the team is targeting a return of mid- to late February. He has missed the last 18 games. . . . Rowe expects to have rookie right wing Jerome Samson (lower body) back after the all-star break. Samson, who leads the Rats with nine power-play goals, has missed three straight games.

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