by Jesse Eisenberg
The Albany River Rats swept their East Division semifinal series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and will advance to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1998.
Despite the obvious cause for celebration, head coach Jeff Daniels has focused on keeping his players grounded for the long haul that is the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” explained the second-year bench boss. “We won the first round, but there are still a few more stages to go and we’re in no position to get too high, because we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. The playoffs can be an emotional rollercoaster, where you win a game and you’re right up top, but if you lose a game you’re crashing back down and you have to find a way to get back up right away.”
Daniels has yet to see how his team will respond to a playoff loss, but he does think the club has a lot to learn from its opening series, which he feels could have gone either way.
“All four games were really close,” said Daniels. “With the exception of the empty-net goal (in Game 4), they were all one-goal games. I thought it was two evenly-matched teams and it could have gone either way.”
One area of improvement that Daniels took from the series was his club’s power play production, which will be a priority at this week’s practices following an 0-for-20 performance in the first round.
“We didn’t score, but we did get good looks out there and we did move the puck around,” he pointed out. “We hit a couple of posts and they made a couple of big saves against us. So that’s one area we’ll work on, but the problem isn’t a lack of skill out there, it’s the execution. So other than that I think we were pretty solid.”
On the flip side, Daniels was happy to see some of his younger players get their feet wet in the short series, as eight River Rats made their professional playoff debuts, including goaltender Justin Peters.
“The team got a taste of the commitment that it takes, of the intensity of the games and the discipline required to win in the playoffs,” said Daniels. “As we move onto the next round, it will get even tougher and the intensity will pick up even more. I thought for the first round they handled it really well.”
Daniels, armed with his deepest roster at any point of the 2009-10 season, kept a number of everyday players on the sidelines through the first four games of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
He’s tempted to shuffle in healthy scratches Zach FitzGerald, Brad Herauf and Jonathan Paiement, who were each lineup mainstays during the regular season, but would have a hard time justifying any changes to a group that hasn’t lost a game.
“It’s tough, because the guys that are playing right now deserve to be in there,” Daniels said. “They’re playing well and getting the job done for us. That said, there will be other guys who are chomping at the bit to get back in that lineup and sometimes its not what they’re not doing, it’s just that the other guys are playing so well right now.”
The River Rats will face the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears in round two, with Game One of the East Division Finals kicking off on Saturday night in Hershey. Daniels is relieved to have avoided the daunting task of keeping his team fresh through what could have been as long as a nine-day break.
“The break is the perfect time for us at four days,” he said. “If it gets longer than that, then you can get a little concerned about keeping the guys chomping at the bit to get back at it. I think with four days here, we’ll take a couple days to recover and two days of practice, and get started this weekend.”
The Top Rat has known all along that the road to the Calder Cup would likely be through Hershey. The team and its coaches, fresh off a solid post-season start, had no interest in side-stepping the league’s best team during the regular season.
“We knew we’d have to play Hershey eventually, so let’s get at it,” concluded Daniels.