The American Hockey League season is a long one, a parade of ups and downs that come and go as the six-month stretch ticks by game by game.
Come late January, the season’s midway point has come and gone, the haves and have-nots become more clear, but two months of regular-season hockey remain before the Calder Cup playoffs even begin to get underway.
It’s no different for the Albany River Rats. The three-in-three weekends, the two-gamer to Manitoba and the fight for a playoff spot in the tough, chippy East Division are all still to come for the River Rats.
That’s why a regular-season tilt in the Continental Airlines Arena on January 22 served to break up the day-to-day routines of the River Rats as they crossed the season’s midpoint. Taking on East Division rival Bridgeport, only seven River Rats in head coach Red Gendron‘s lineup that night held an National Hockey League game to their credit.
The carrot on the stick came as more than just a quiet night in North Jersey. Gendron’s team received the full-bore NHL treatment, setting up shop for a night in the New Jersey Devils’ dressing room, playing their hockey in front of the top of the Devils’ powerbrokers, the movers and shakers of last season’s Stanley Cup champions.
The foray into the shadow of New York City for the AHL – the match-up was the first-ever AHL regular-season contest in the state of New Jersey — paid off for the River Rats, who churned out a 2-1 win over the Sound Tigers.
A game in an NHL building did not much faze River Rats center Craig Darby, who entered the contest with 196 NHL appearances to his name, time split between the New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Montreal and New Jersey, the River Rats’ NHL affiliate.
“I’m sure the younger guys did [notice the surroundings] a lot more than me,” Darby said. “It’s another game. We wanted to get two points no matter where we played. We needed the two points badly.”
“I’m sure guys were a little bit more excited than usual but, hey, it’s nice to get the win.”
Still, contest was a bit more than a typical night for Darby. Despite the NHL time, the, who entered the contest two points shy of 500 in his AHL career.
Bridgeport held Darby scoreless that night, however.
So, six days after the North Jersey tilt, Darby and his teammates paid Bridgeport a visit to the Arena at Harbor Yard. This time Darby hit and surpassed the 500 mark, assisting on two Ilkka Pikkarainen goals to help the River Rats pull out a 2-2 tie with Bridgeport.
Darby is an AHL standby, a player able to hold down a spot over the years with six organizations, bringing a scoring touch to each of them.
Now at 501 points, Darby’s numbers are on a level increasingly unreachable in a younger, less veteran-oriented league that makes player development its calling card.
Hitting 500 puts Darby in the company of 1990s-era snipers like Michel Picard, Mark Greig, Ken Gernander, Peter White, Brad Smyth and Bob Wren.
There is a school of thought that reaching such a milestone simply might be the result of a long career spent in the minor leagues.
“I think it’s a sign I’ve been around awhile,” Darby acknowledged.
But putting 500 points up is milestone. More so in a league the caliber of the AHL, Darby believes.
“I’m not ashamed to have 500 points,” Darby said, the tone of his voice rising. “This is a pretty good league, and there are a lot of good players in this league. I take pride in my play.”
With the shift to a tighter brand of hockey now in full swing throughout the AHL, Darby’s points are that much more earned than those of players from an earlier time.
“Definitely in the last three or four years, the AHL has gotten a lot better. Defensively it’s a lot better. It’s a lot tougher to score goals.”
Yet even in Albany, where Gendron and the Devils preach a low-risk systems-oriented approach to hockey, Darby manages to put up solid numbers (15 goals, 21 assists) that put him atop the River Rats in scoring.
That said, his numbers were not on Darby’s mind all that much that night. The River Rats are already in the midst of a battle for a playoff spot.
Darby won a Calder Cup in 1998 with the Philadelphia Phantoms, so he knows what’s required for the Calder Cup.
“That was one of the best times in my life, winning the Calder Cup with the Phantoms. Winning it is just awesome.”
Darby continued, alluding to the Devils.
“I’m sure [the Devils] know exactly what I’m talking about. Whoever has won it, I’m sure they’re very proud, their family is very proud. It’s tough to get there and tough to win.
As for the River Rats, whose focus now is set on first making the Calder Cup playoffs?
“We’re not talking about a championship. We’re talking about getting our butts in gear and getting into the playoffs. I think we would be a good playoff team, but we have to get there first.”
One of Darby’s teammates in Philadelphia was Neil Little, who has faced Darby in net through the years and raves about the 31-year-old center.
“The first thing that pops into my mind is that he is a positive team guy. You can never have enough have enough of those guys. He brings a positive attitude to the rink and a great work ethic, not to mention he is real fun to be around.”
“When you combine those attributes and the skill that he has got, you’d love to have on your team, and when he is on the opposition, he is tough to play against. Any team would love to have him.”
After the Meadowlands game, Darby and his brethren faced a bus ride up I-87 back to Albany to face the Binghamton Senators the following night, a trip back to the Pepsi Arena for a game with a more standard AHL feel to it.
Being back in Albany suits Darby, a native of Oneida, N.Y.
“Overall, I like to play [in Albany].
“The fans are great. Of course, we should be winning more, so we can get more. It’s nice to be home.”
Then smiling, Darby took a look around the Devils’ dressing room, where each of New Jersey’s three Stanley Cups is commemorated and a photo of the 1995 celebration sits front and center.
“I’d like to play here, too.”