It took a couple of months for it to come together, but in their last season in Albany, the River Rats put together the franchise’s best campaign in more than a decade.
With eight rookies on the opening-day roster, they weren’t world-beaters when they first hit the ice. By Christmas, though, they were turning heads in the league.
Albany veteran defenseman Tim Conboy said several years ago the team had too many vets, but when he was reassigned to Albany from Raleigh after the first couple of months this season, the Rats didn’t have a vet problem.
“Now, we had a too-many-rookies problem,” Conboy said. “We had four or five guys who were under 20 years old. But they’re all great, young players and at the halfway point through the year, they kind of found their way in this league, and ended up being some of the guys who carried this team.”
They helped carry the team to a 43-29-3-5 record in the regular season, their best finish since the 1998-1999 season. The Rats swept first-round playoff opponent Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the first postseason series win for the franchise since 1998, before falling in four to defending champ Hershey.
The River Rats started a run around Thanksgiving, winning seven straight games, earning points in nine straight and going 9-1-1-0 before taking a few of days off for Christmas.
They made that run with several key players recalled to Carolina for stretches, including captain Patrick Dwyer, Brandon Sutter, Jay Harrison, Brett Carson, Drayson Bowman, Bryan Rodney and goalie Justin Peters. Rob Hennigar and Michael Ryan were battling injuries at the time.
“That’s the thing, as a coach, you’re most proud of,” Daniels said. “We never made excuses. We could have packed it in at different times when we had all those guys called up. [We had] three or four defensemen called up and guys hurt, but we found ways to win games, whether it was a goaltender standing on his head or a guy from the East Coast [Hockey League] coming up and scoring a big goal for us.”
That guy from the ECHL was Jacob Micflikier, who recorded four goals and five assists in nine games of that stretch.
Third-year winger Jerome Samson was second in the league in goals (37) and fourth in points (78). He was a first-team all-star and the AHL’s Player of the Month for March. He got his first NHL ice time this season.
Peters eventually was given his shot after the holidays and went 6-3-0 in his time with Carolina, winning his first three starts. If he re-signs with Carolina (he is a restricted free agent), he will be a candidate for a job in Raleigh next year.
Defenseman Casey Borer will be trying to do the same thing, but for the first time. Two years ago, he was rehabbing a blown knee. Last year, he was rehabbing a broken neck from the February 2009 bus crash.
For the first time, he enters the postseason healthy and is grateful for a chance to attend training camp in the fall.
“It’s harder than I expected, to jump in, mid-season, when you’ve been holding down a couch for six weeks,” Borer said. “I think you need that training camp, and you need that grace period to avoid some of the peaks and valleys I went through in my game. It’ll be encouraging for me to not have to jump in in the middle of the season next year. I can participate in the training camp and get the jitters out, get my timing going right away.”
Rookies Zach Boychuk and Jamie McBain caught the eyes of the Carolina brass and are among the half-dozen or more players who might start next season with the Hurricanes instead of the Charlotte Checkers. Boychuk said ’Canes coach Paul Maurice met with the players at the end of the year before seven of them were sent back to Albany for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to go down, and play the way you can.’ He said, ‘The farther you guys go in the playoffs and the better you perform, that just increases your chances,’ ” Boychuk said.
It will be tough to see some of his players go, but preparing them for the NHL is what Daniels is there to do.
“You really want to pull for those guys and hope they do well,” Daniels said. “But at the end of the day, they deserve all the credit because they’re putting the work in. We’re kind of like proud dads, watching those guys play.”