By Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat Archive
When the New York Rangers signed forward Chris McCarthy out of the University of Vermont in March of 2014, the Collegeville, Pa., native was fresh off of an 18-goal, 42-point senior season with the Catamounts, and seemed poised to be an offensive force in the AHL. He got his feet wet with eight games in the Wolf Pack lineup after the conclusion of his college season, and was primed to recreate his Hockey East offensive exploits right from the start of the following AHL campaign.
As it turned out, though, McCarthy barely managed to get into the Wolf Pack mix in 2014-15. A spare part coming out of training camp, he was assigned to Greenville of the ECHL in mid-October and spent the bulk of the season with the Road Warriors, logging only five games with the Wolf Pack all season.
This year, however, not only has the 24-year-old McCarthy solidified a roster spot with the Pack, he has been a key contributor. Playing mostly on the fourth line, McCarthy has turned in quality minutes on a nightly basis and has begun to show the offensive touch that made him a Second Team Hockey East All-Star as a senior.
When asked recently what the key has been to his turnaround this year, McCarthy responded, “I think just my mindset overall. I came in this year just trying to get in the lineup and work my way in, and really just put my best foot forward, and whatever they [the Wolf Pack coaches] asked of me, just do for them. We’ve kind of found some success, and I’ve just been trying to be positive all the way throughout, no matter what the ups and downs may be through the season. It’s a long season, I learned that last year and I think that’s really helped me.
“Controlling what you can control, I think that’s where my mind’s been at this year, and that’s all that you can do, with this long season, going out and working hard every shift, every minute that you’re out there. That’s really all you can do.”
Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander’s comment about what has made the difference for McCarthy, “Probably opportunity, and some of it’s learning or growth, or getting acclimated at this [the AHL] level. But he’s certainly battled his way up the ranks, played a lot of fourth-line minutes while he was getting that experience, and he’s been deserving of all the ice time he’s been given lately. The more responsibility he’s had lately, he’s been equal to the challenge.”
McCarthy has played all three forward positions for the Wolf Pack this season, and has been joined on the fourth line for most of the campaign by 12-year pro Nick Tarnasky. McCarthy’s and Tarnasky’s backgrounds could hardly be more different—McCarthy, an American college product who grew up near Philadelphia, and Tarnasky, a grizzled veteran out of the Western Junior ranks who hails from rural Alberta—but the duo have found plenty of commonality on the ice.
“Nick’s awesome,” McCarthy said of Tarnasky. “He and I have really been a package deal this whole year, and I think we’ve found great chemistry there. He’s a big guy, he works hard, he gives you everything he’s got every night. And he’s got great mitts around the net, so I just try to find him in open areas, and he’s found the back of the net quite a good amount this year.
“He definitely has some offensive skill, but I think he opens up the ice for us, with forechecking and his hard-nosed mentality. I’ve enjoyed playing with him a lot this year, and we’ve found some good chemistry there.”
Tarnasky’s calling card is physical play and getting in on the forecheck, and he has been impressed with how effective McCarthy has been in those elements of the game.
“I think he actually does a decent job of finishing hits and being F-1 (the first forward in on the forecheck) as well,” said Tarnasky. “And whether he or I, or whoever the third person is that we’re with, is the F-1, I think he’s really good at reading and being able to find those loose pucks, once the turnovers are created. He’s a good, big body, good balance, he’s able to kind of turn his back and protect pucks. And then I think he’s got a pretty good skill level, where once he’s got the puck, he can turn his back and look to make a play, or look to release it to where me or our other linemate will be.
“I think we’ve become pretty understanding of where one another’s going to be, and supporting each other on the wall, whether he’s on the right side or up the middle. Just being able to have the confidence to chip the puck or throw it cross-ice, I think we have a pretty good understanding that I’ll be going on my side or coming across, at the same time when I know he’ll be doing the same.”
It has been somewhat of a rotating cast of characters at the other forward spot on the fourth line, and recently the likes of Luke Adam and Brian Gibbons, two players who have a significant level of NHL experience, have spent some time skating with McCarthy and Tarnasky. That has helped McCarthy to a bit of a statistical breakout, with a three-point game in a 7-2 Wolf Pack win in Springfield February 20 and a personal AHL-best three-game point-scoring streak from February 17-21.
“It just gives us confidence,” McCarthy said of the offensive rewards. “We’ve been playing some great hockey as of late and seeing pucks start to go in for us is obviously a good sign. And being marked as a fourth line, you might say, ‘We don’t need to be doing that, we just need to go out and create energy,’ and everything else. And whatever way we can help, it’s great.
“We think that we can help this team out as much as the next guy, and whatever the role of the night may be, we’re just going to go out there and do it.
“Especially the past month or so, we’ve finally been really clicking and finding ways to help the team out the best we can.”
Tarnasky added, “We’ve probably played 35 or so games together, and we’re having fun together. And I played with Luke in Rochester, and I think the games that the three of us played together were pretty good to watch and we had a lot of fun. Same with Gibby (Gibbons), he’s a good player, and seemingly whoever gets mixed in with us, I think we’re doing a good job as far as offensive-zone pressure, and creating quite a bit of offense.”
That offensive contribution by the McCarthy-Tarnasky-et. al. combination is greatly valued by Gernander, who is not a coach who expects any of his players to limit their contributions to rigidly defined roles.
“We don’t try and pigeonhole anybody fourth line per se, because I think over the last little stretch here, they’ve been pretty good, contributing offensively,” said Gernander. “And certainly when you go on the road, you don’t always get the (line) matches you want, so they’ve got to be able to play against anybody, really.
“They’re (McCarthy and Tarnasky) both guys who have kind of fought their way up the ranks this season, so there’s a little bit of camaraderie there, and I think they have a pretty good friendship off the ice as well. So it’s been a bit of chemistry, too.”
The versatility that McCarthy has shown in moving back and forth among center and both wings has improved his value as well, and his willing acceptance of the positional juggling goes back to the positive mindset that has keyed his progress here in year two of his pro career.
“Like I said, controlling what you can control, and that’s going out wherever they say to play, you go out there and put your best foot forward and give them everything you can,” McCarthy expanded. “And switching back and forth hasn’t really been an issue for me, it’s fine.
“I’ve played center enough in college that when they asked me to play center here it hasn’t been too much of a change for me. It’s obviously a little bit different in the D zone, but for the most part it’s been pretty easy for me.”
The defensive-zone aspect, playing the “200-foot game,” is often an issue for players who were big point producers at other levels of hockey before reaching the pros, and McCarthy considers his play away from the puck still to be a work in progress.
“I think it’s been getting better as the season’s gone on,” he said. “I think our line, what we’re asked of is energy and forechecking and being sound defensively, and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that lately. And the defensive game is a huge part here at the pro level, and I just try to really improve that.”
After his goal-and-two-assists outburst in Springfield, McCarthy found the net again the next day at home against Binghamton, for his first AHL goal-scoring streak. That tally against the Senators, on which McCarthy stepped across the blue line and unloaded a long shot that squeaked its way through the pads of Binghamton goaltender Matt O’Connor, was the kind that goal-scorers playing with confidence tend to get, but McCarthy was hardly ready to declare himself red-hot.
“Some of the ones that you don’t expect to go in end up finding their way in, and vice versa,” he chuckled philosophically. “The good opportunities might not find their way in. The confidence has been good for our line, and that confidence has helped improve our game.”