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Peoria freshmen majoring in chemistry

by Ian Yelton || AHL On The Beat Archive

You don’t have to study it in college to learn chemistry, at least not the kind that you need to build a winning hockey team.

Chemistry on a hockey team can take trial-and-error, multiple experiments, and maybe an explosion or two along the way.

With a new head coach and only seven returning players in Peoria, there were plenty of handshakes and introductions at Blues training camp in St. Louis this year. There were meals and stories shared and ice-time spent in a feeling-out process. All in search of the right balance, the right combination. Maybe this type of chemistry can’t be taught, only developed.

And while there is no periodic table of hockey, you can’t help but think if there was, the Rivermen rookies would be lined up right next to each other.

“We are all extremely close. We do pretty much everything together just like any other rookie core would, but for us it’s a bit different,” defenseman Mark Cundari said. “We all know each other and everyone is comfortable.”

The city of Vaughan, Ont., provided three of Peoria’s 2010 rookie class, with Stefan Della Rovere hailing from the Maple section of town while Anthony Nigro and Cundari grew up in down the street from one another in Woodbridge.

Best friends since they were six years old, Nigro and Cundari played together through minor hockey and they even attended the same high school. They have spent the last four years pitted against each other from time to time in the Ontario Hockey League and being reunited at the professional level makes one of the toughest parts of being a rookie a little bit easier.

“It’s definitely a lot of fun and it makes it a lot easier coming in with one of your best friends and another guy you knew from back home,” Nigro said. “It’s not as hard going into a group of guys that are older and at a different level when you are trying to make the team and you don’t quite know anybody. You got those guys that have your back and when you need someone to talk to they are always there.”

It was a bit of a different path for Della Rovere though. Della Rovere was drafted by Washington in 2008 and after his Memorial Cup run ended with the Barrie Colts (OHL) last year, he signed a tryout agreement with the Hershey Bears and appeared in a pair of playoff games on their way to the Calder Cup. He was traded to the parent St. Louis Blues in July and could not have been happier with where he landed.

“I started in Washington and then got traded here and I couldn’t believe it. I only knew a handful of people and then I came here with Cundari, Nigro and Jake Allen,” Della Rovere said. “I knew of bunch of the guys coming here and it was kind of neat how a lot of us are from the same hometown and it’s been a lot of fun so far and exciting.”

Allen and Della Rovere (as well as Blues rookie Alex Pietrangelo) were teammates on Canada’s 2010 World Junior Championship roster where they were beaten by fellow rookie Phil McRae and the United States.

McRae, whose father Basil played nearly 600 games in the NHL, got to know his future teammates quite well in junior while wearing opposing sweaters. Out of his only 15 fights in the OHL he managed to fight both Della Rovere and Cundari, although none of them were Blues property at the time.

From all the familiarity comes a level of comfort that has gone beyond gags in the locker room and translated to the ice. The six rookie skaters have combined for 17 goals and 26 assists through the first 23 contests.

“Our comfort level between the guys has shown on the ice,” Cundari said. “The forwards — Della Rovere, McRae, [Tyler] Shattock and Nigro — they have all started to come around here and get into a groove and fit in with their roles on the ice.”

The one rookie who seems most comfortable though is the goaltender Allen. He is 8-1-0 with four shutouts in his first nine professional starts. He was named the Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month for November, the first award of its kind for a Rivermen netminder. His four shutouts have already broken a Rivermen AHL record for a single season. His goals-against average is a stellar 1.27 and his save percentage is at .962, which both lead all AHL goaltenders.

“I played three years in the Quebec Major Junior League where it’s a pretty offensive league, so I think that really prepared me well for the AHL level,” Allen said. “I was just trying to prepare and get a little better every day and those three years really got me ready for this season.”

Head coach Jared Bednar has taken notice of the quick chemistry and has kept Della Rovere and Nigro on the same line over the past couple of weeks. Another rookie, Tyler Shattock, plays right wing on the line earning it the nickname of “The Kid Line.”

“Their work ethic has been improving and I feel like they’re gaining confidence in their game and getting used to the pace of play in this league,” Bednar said. “As a young group of guys they have been a reliable line for us.”

With Allen in goal, Cundari and first-round pick Ian Cole on the blueline, and the four forwards up front it has the Rivermen (and the Blues) looking towards the future. So while Bednar is still filling beakers and combining elements, the rookies have given him a head start on April’s exam.