While Sabres fans watch the likes of Mike Weber, Jamie McBain and Alexander Sulzer struggle mightily on defense, the good news to report is Mark Pysyk is flourishing in Rochester. Once the medals are handed out in Sochi, it seems hard to believe the former No. 1 draft pick won’t be heading back up the Thruway to the NHL.
“This is really good for me,” Pysyk said Saturday prior to the Rochester Amerks’ 5-1 loss to Grand Rapids in First Niagara Center. “Sitting around for two weeks during the Olympics and jumping right back into NHL action would be a little tough for a younger guy so this is the right thing for me. It’s good to keep playing hockey.”
The Sabres took advantage of special rules about shuttling young players to the minors to give Pysyk more AHL seasoning – and six games during the NHL’s Olympic break.
Pysyk, 22, has played 42 games for the Sabres this year, with his bizarre overtime-winning goal against Phoenix and five assists accounting for his six points. He played more than 20 minutes in 18 of those games, and his minus-11 rating belies the way most observers feel he’s played defensively. The Sabres, of course, score so little that plus-minus numbers are heavily skewed this season.
In the AHL, Pysyk has six assists and a plus-5 rating in 10 games. He’s on the Amerks’ shutdown pair along with Brayden McNabb, and it seems pretty likely one or both of them could wind up in Buffalo soon after the Olympics.
“The two of them are elite at this level, no question,” said Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy. “The steps Mark needs to make are playing more minutes, handling those minutes and then rounding out his game in terms of being a little more physical defensively. You want to see him moving guys from the puck with his body, not just his stick.”
Pysyk, who was not on the ice for any goals Saturday, said the Sabres have given him no indication about their post-Olympic plans. They simply said to be ready for lots of ice time in the AHL and he’s gotten that on special teams, including key work at the point on the power play.
“They told me to just go down and work on consistency, play a heavier game and protect the puck a little more than I had been,” Pysyk said. “One of the big plusses of being here is getting those chances on the power play and penalty kill. It’s been great.”
Rochester entered the game on a roll, with an 8-1 record in its last nine games. But defending AHL champion Grand Rapids has owned the Amerks this year by winning all four games and outscoring them, 21-4.
The Amerks fell behind, 2-0, after 13 minutes and never caught up. Their only goal was a power-play tally by Rasmus Ristolainen at 16:47 of the first period, a wicked one-timer from the left point off a feed from Chad Ruhwedel.
But Ristolainen, Buffalo’s top pick last June, finished the game minus-4 to post his worst rating of the season.
Sanborn native Tom McCollum, Detroit’s No. 1 pick in 2008, made 27 saves in goal for Grand Rapids. It was his 19th win of the season, tied for second in the AHL. The Griffins had five different goal scorers and former Sabres defenseman Nathan Paetsch had two assists.
Ruhwedel and center Phil Varone returned to the Amerks lineup after being returned by the Sabres to play over the break. Winger Linus Omark cleared waivers and was also assigned to Rochester. He should play Friday at home against Utica.
There were 17,968 tickets distributed, many to season ticket-holders in both Buffalo and Rochester. The actual crowd, however, was far less than that, with about 8,000 in the house.