By Brian Weidler, "Game Time" Prospect Department
RIVERMEN SPLIT PAIR OF PRE-SEASON GAMES WITH IN-STATE RIVALS CHICAGO AND ROCKFORD
The 2011-12 AHL season kicks off for real this coming Friday, Oct. 8, but the Rivermen used a pair of pre-season contests against in-state foes to tune up in advance of the home opener.
Friday night, Sep. 30, the Rivermen dropped a 3-2 decision at Carver Arena to the Chicago Wolves. Newly-acquired defenseman Danny Syvret and 2010-11 Rivermen scoring leader T.J. Hensick tallied for the Rivermen, and goaltender Jake "The Snake" Allen (shown at left) picked up an assist on Hensick's goal while turning aside 28 of 31 Chicago shots on goal.
Hensick and Syvret each had two-point nights with a goal and an assist, while free-agent defenseman Jake Gannon picked up the other assist on Syvret's goal. Newly-acquired enforcer Kyle Hagel took on Chicago's Matt Clackson in a first-period fight, with the two arriving at a split decision.
Then, on Saturday, the Blues sent eight players to Peoria as the final cuts of training camp, including veteran Jonathan Cheechoo and defensemen Ian Cole and Mark Cundari, as well as a somewhat unexpected demotion, goalie Ben Bishop. The newly-assigned Rivermen did not arrive in time to play in Saturday night's tilt in Rockford vs. the Ice Hogs, however, so Allen had to once again carry the load for the Rivs in goal.
The Blues' third pick (34th overall) in 2008 was equal to the challenge, turning away 25 of 27 shots in regulation and overtime, and then stopping 15 of 16 shootout attempts as the Rivermen scratched out a 3-2 SO win over Rockford at the newly-rechristened BMO (Bank of Montreal) Harris Bank Center.
Syvret was again the offensive star of the night, recording another two-point game with the game-tying goal midway through the third period and an assist on Tyler Shattock's first-period tally. Stefan Della Rovere also assisted on Shattock's goal, while rookies Jay Barriball and Brett Ponich chipped in on Syvret's goal.
The bitter in-state rivalry between these two clubs picked right up where it left off last season, with Peoria free-agent forward Chris Bruton dropping the gloves with Rockford tough guy Kyle Beach (brother of Blues' prospect Cody Beach) just 23 seconds into the contest. Later, at 10:56 of the second period, Rockford free agent Rob Flick squared off with the Rivs' 6' 7 Ponich. Ponich used his height and reach advantage to land more punches in the brawl than the smaller (6' 2, 208 lbs) Flick, but Flick managed to bloody Ponich's nose a bit with a solid left late in the fight.
With the game tied at two apiece after 60 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime, a shootout was necessary to decide the winner. Veteran Derek Nesbitt scored on his first attempt against Rockford goalie Alec Richards, and the Hogs came right back to beat Allen n the next attempt. After that, both goalies turned away shot after shot until rookie blueliner David Shields, the 16th shooter for the Rivs, beat Richards with a wrist shot to ice the victory.
Syvret finishes the pre-season with four points (2 G, 2 A) in two games, and Allen turned in a respectable 2.42 GAA and 91.4% save percentage for the pre-season.
BISHOP SEES DEMOTION AS CHALLENGE, PLANS TO RISE TO THE OCCASION
After the Blues' 4-0 loss to the Dallas Stars at Scottrade Center on Saturday afternoon, GM Doug Armstrong had some decisions to make about the final cuts to get the Blues' NHL roster down to 25.
Some decisions were easier than others; the four players called up from Peoria on Friday for one last look -- Jonathan Cheechoo, Mark Cundari, Anthony Peluso and Brett Sterling -- were returned to Peoria as expected. An untimely injury to Blues' winger B.J. Crombeen opened a roster space for newly-acquired LW Evgeny Grachev, a space that Grachev's solid camp had paved the way for. Two Peoria veterans from 2010-11, wingers Ryan Reaves and Chris Porter, also stayed up with the big club, as did defenseman Nikita Nikitin.
That left four players who split time between the AHL and NHL last season on the outside looking in; defenseman Ian Cole, winger Adam Cracknell, center Philip McRae... and goaltender Ben Bishop.
Bishop, who was lauded by many observers as having outplayed off-season acquisition Brian Elliott in the battle to back up Jaroslav Halak, was surprised -- and not a little put off -- by the decision, as the Peoria Journal Star noted late Saturday night:
"I was definitely shocked," Bishop told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the Blues kept NHL veteran backup Brian Elliott. "I wasn't very happy with the decision, but you've got to respect the decision. I felt almost 100 percent positive that I thought I was going to be (with the Blues). It was tough when I found out the news. I wasn't happy with it, but now '’ve just got to put the past in the past and go to Peoria and win games and hopefully get up (to the NHL) soon."
Said Blues general manager Doug Armstrong: "At the end of the day, there wasn't enough to differentiate between the two in our mind and we decided to go with the experienced guy to start with ... Ben has to go down there and put those Cory Schneider-type numbers up over a long period of time like (Schneider) did in the American League, too."
Added Bishop: "Schneider was in the American League for four years, Jimmy Howard was in there for four years. If it takes four years, it takes four years. People turn out to be pretty good goalies in the NHL. Hopefully, I'll be on a team by then, whether it’s this year or next year."
THE WEEK IN REVIEW:
Peoria 2 vs. Chicago 3, Friday, Sep. 30, 2011.
Peoria 3 at Rockford 2 (SO), Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
Saturday, October 8, 2011 ... Game Time 7:05 PM CDT at Carver Arena, Peoria, Illinois. NHL Affiliate: Nashville Predators.
RIVERMEN NEWS LINKS:
09/24/11 -- Blues Assign First Batch of Players to Peoria (Rivermen.net).
09/25/11 -- Allen and Hensick Among 12 Players Assigned to Peoria (Rivermen.net).
09/30/11 -- Wolves Top Rivermen 3-2 in Preseason Opener (Rivermen.net).
10/01/11 -- Blues Assign Eight Players to Peoria (Rivermen.net).
10/01/11 -- Rivermen Win Preseason Finale in 16-Round Shootout (Rivermen.net).
10/01/11 -- Rivermen win with Bishop between pipes ** (Peoria Journal-Star).
** Bishop did not play in Saturday's game; probable typo by PJStar.