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Petruzalek and Ryan leading the offense in Albany

by Jesse Eisenberg || AHL On The Beat Archive

Michael Ryan will represent the River Rats at this month’s AHL All-Star Classic.

Albany River Rats points leader Michael Ryan has never set foot in a rink outside of North America, but don’t tell his Czech-born linemate Jakub Petruzalek.

"It’s unbelievable," said Petruzalek. "It’s good to see someone who can understand my hockey style. He looks like one of the European guys."

From his Czech accent to the unique curve on his stick blade, Petruzalek knows a thing or two about European hockey. Positioned just behind Ryan in the team points race, the 23-year-old is in denial of his scoring partner’s Bostonian heritage.

"He’s looking to make passes first – not just dumping pucks in, but trying to be creative with the puck," explains Petruzalek. "Like I said he’s got the European style in his brain and it’s just really good to go on the ice and play with him every game."

Their contrasting backgrounds aside, Petruzalek and Ryan have created a dynamic scoring partnership this season in Albany. Head coach Jeff Daniels first paired the two forwards a few weeks into the season and, once together, the combo quickly showed tremendous speed, creativity and a knack for scoring "pretty" goals.

"Both (Ryan) and Petro are our two best skaters on the team," remarked Daniels."They’ve got some chemistry and they’re playing well together."

The Petruzalek-to-Ryan set-up has become an Albany mainstay, as the pass-happy Petruzalek has registered assists on eight of Ryan’s team-leading 15 goals. While the two have totaled 52 points this season, the River Rats have come to rely heavily on their offense; Petruzalek or Ryan have scored a point in 22 of Albany’s 38 games, and the team has won only one game all season in which one of the pair failed to put up a point.

While Petruzalek attributes their success to an international style, Ryan isn’t as quick to finger the European angle.

"I think we’ve been able to read off each other a little bit," said the 28-year-old out of Northeastern University. "He’s got great vision, great passing ability – I’m just trying to finish as much as I can for him."

Though Ryan took just a few games to become an important part of the River Rats’ identity, the veteran was not in Albany’s plans heading into the season. Ryan spent the last two seasons in the Buffalo Sabres organization where he played in 65 NHL games. Entering the summer with 306 professional games under his belt, the soft-spoken winger wound up in the Nashville Predators’ training camp on a free-agent tryout, but did not sign a contract.

"It was an interesting off-season – pretty long," recalled Ryan. "I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I ended up taking about a month off after training camp, but I had the opportunity to sign with Carolina and come to Albany, and just kind of establish myself again. It’s been going well so far."

Ryan quickly took advantage of his opportunity. Atop the team scoring chart for most of the season, Ryan kicked off the New Year by being selected to represent the River Rats in the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Charter Communications.

"It’s well deserved," said Daniels. "He was brought in here to be a leader and provide offense and that’s what he’s done. He’s a great skater that creates a lot of his offense from his speed."

River Rats team captain Tim Conboy explains what Ryan brings to every game:

"He’s got a lot of skill and he just brings that element – other teams have to key on him every night or the puck’s going to be in their net."

Unlike newcomer Ryan, Petruzalek was a major part of Albany’s plans at the start of the season. Acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers in 2006, the 2004 ninth-round pick returned to Albany from Carolina Hurricanes training camp as the River Rats’ top returning scorer from last season.

Jakub Petruzalek has 10 goals and 25 points in 38 games for Albany this season.

"Training camp started for me really good," recalled Petruzalek. "I was really excited about it. I saw a chance to play there – I got two exhibition games for Carolina – so it went really good. I got sent down here to Albany and I think the season started for me better than last year."

To go with his offensive prowess, Petruzalek’s teammates noticed another part of his game developing.

"He’s a smaller player, but he plays like he’s my size," remarked Conboy. "He’s not afraid to hit anybody and he’s good defensively."

Ryan echoed, "He’s a feisty little guy too. It’s always better to play with someone who’s not afraid to get in there and dig pucks out."

Of the only actual European forward on the team, coach Daniels joked, "I wish he would shoot a little more – he always thinks pass first and he makes his own beautiful passes, but at the same time I get on him for a lot of opportunities when he can shoot the puck and he doesn’t. He kind of drives me a little crazy, he’s that type of player that’s always looking to make that pretty play."

Despite his light-hearted reservations, Daniels added another self-proclaimed pass-first winger to the mix in late December when ECHL All-Star Yannick Tifu was called up to Albany. Tifu, a Brossard, Que., native, made the international trifecta an immediate hit; in his first six games on recall the 24-year-old notched six points.

Tifu recognized his fortune, calling the opportunity to skate with his new line-mates unbelievable. "With
Petro I love it so much. Petro is an unbelievable passer – he sees the ice really well. And Ryan, I don’t really think I have to talk too much about him; I mean the guy’s played in the NHL. He’s just unbelievable with me in the (locker) room, outside the ice he’s always talking to me and he’s always trying to help me the most he can. It’s fun to watch him play. You learn from a guy like that…It’s really fun and I’m learning the most I can from those two guys."

Petruzalek insists that Tifu completes his pseudo-European line.

"I think when we three play together it looks like European hockey… He’s the same kind of player like Michael Ryan – Ryno’s got the more experience, Tifu’s like me: we’re looking for passes."

Before the seventh game of his call-up Tifu suffered an injury in practice, but is expected back in a few weeks. While Tifu works on sticking in the AHL for the rest of the season, his potent line-mates are working on career goals of their own for the second half.

"Be up with the big club," proclaims Ryan. "Get back to where I was the year before. That’s pretty much my main focus right now."

Petruzalek has yet to crack the NHL, but remains grounded in his own game:

"We’re going to look to score more goals than we did in the first half and get some more points for the team – that’s the first goal and that’s what I’m looking for right now."

Petruzalek and Ryan’s undeniable chemistry and production are sure to launch both players into the next stages of their careers. In the meantime, as the River Rats claw their way back into the playoff hunt, they’ll continue to rely on both high-flying forwards to provide the team’s primary firepower via their exciting pass-happy style.