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The cavalry is coming for the Newfoundland Growlers, but John Snowden wants to make sure you don’t forget the guys who held the fort.
Five players, including four of the team’s top point-getters, have been returned by the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies to the Growlers, who open a four-game homestand with a matchup against the Reading Royals tonight (7 p.m.) at Mile One Centre.
The five — team-leading scorer Aaron Luchuk, top rookie scorers Justin Brazeau and Joseph Duszak, forward Matt Bradley and first-year rearguard Mac Hollowell — are sorely needed by a Newfoundland team that finished a road trip Saturday night with a lineup of 15 skaters, one less than the norm, and which included four recent additions from the Southern Professional Hockey League.
But that short-staffed group finished off a 12-day, seven-day swing through the northeast U.S. with a 5-2 win over the Maine Mariners.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of the players,” said Snowden, “and the whole staff feels the same about the way they handled the situation, playing a man short and missing so many big pieces of the puzzle that have been with for most of this season.
“They played what I think was one of the more solid 60-minute games of the season. They competed hard, stayed on top of guys and didn’t give up the puck a lot, making sure we maintained possession, not giving up much time or space (to the Mariners).
“They did an outstanding job in a tough situation, I couldn’t have been happier with them.”
The players coming back from the AHL have scored 80 points (23G, 57A) in the ECHL this fall, but while that’s a huge boost, the Growlers are still far from being at what might be considered full strength.
Veteran winger Zach O’Brien and defenceman James Melindy, the Newfoundland captain, were both hurt on the road trip and there is no timeline for their return. The same for rearguard Alex Gudbranson, who has appeared in just two games this season. And winger Scott Pooley, who had 10 goals in 12 games before being promoted to the Marlies, remains in Toronto.
There is some positive news health-wise in that Snowden believes a couple of first-year players, blueliner Sergei Sapego and forward Reid Jackman, could come off the IR sometime in this homestand, which continues with a second hook-up against Reading Wednesday night and finishes with a couple of games versus the Worcester Railers Friday and Saturday.
If and when the two rookies draw into the lineup, it will be part of the comings and goings that have been very much the norm for the Growlers.
Newfoundland (13-8-0) has played 21 games this season and has had the same lineup in back-to-back games only once. And only two players — forward Brady Ferguson and defenceman Mike Kapla — have dressed for all 21 contests.
Snowden, who is in his fifth year of coaching in the ECHL, admits that’s a little out of the ordinary even in a league that is known for rotating rosters, but points out that Newfoundland’s situation “Is different from most of the other teams in this league” because the Growlers are so tied to the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
Counting Pooley, Newfoundland has had 14 players signed to AHL deals with the Marlies, will another three on NHL entry-level contracts with Toronto. So when the teams above are in need of players, as has been the case recently, talent will be syphoned from Newfoundland,
“Im sure if you look at the Marlies’ lineups and the Leafs’ lineups, you’ll find they haven’t had the same ones for very long,” said Snowden.
Up until recently, the Growlers had enough built-in depth in order to address injuries and recalls. That also meant the team started the season with quite a few players who were fixtures in the press box and who were told to hang on to await their opportunities, whenever they arrived.
They’ve arrived now.
“Some guys who didn’t play at the start of the season, who didn’t play the first five or six games, they’ve been in the lineup for the last 10 (games) and haven’t come out,” said Snowden.”
“It is a part of what it is here, and as long everyone buys into it, individually and as a team, it will work, because we will find a way to make it work."