Saturday, March 23, 2013

Akeson, Gustafsson on the brink 3/23

Denis Hamel's days as the Adirondack Phantoms' all-time scoring leader are numbered.

The veteran sniper recorded a team-record 96 points in 140 appearances between 2010 and 2012, but forward Jason Akeson and defenseman Erik Gustafsson are now both within striking distance of their former teammate.

Akeson has 95 career points with the Phantoms in 125 games, while Gustafsson has 94 in 142.

The two could conceivably surpass Hamel this weekend, perhaps as early as tonight at Connecticut.

EDIT, 8:24 p.m.: Akeson has two points tonight, making him the new record holder.

 However, neither of them said they had given the chance to break a team record much thought at all.

"It'd be pretty neat to do, but it's just one of those things," Akeson said after Adirondack practiced Friday. "If you play here long enough, you'll get something. It's exciting, but it's not my main focus."

Gustafsson agreed, saying his focus has always been to reach the National Hockey League. As an offensive-minded, puck-moving defenseman, though, Gustafsson's point production could be viewed as a barometer of his success in that role. The more points he gets could help him make that jump.

"I'm supposed to put points on the board and help the team score," Gustafsson said Friday afternoon. "That's my game. I'm happy I could move on from college and keep putting points on the board. Hopefully I can move up one more step and bring the same type of play up there (in the NHL)."

Hamel, Akeson and Gustafsson have taken different routes to get to the top of the scoring list.

Hamel was a 14th year pro who could not find a job in the AHL before the Phantoms signed him in November 2010, when the team was in the midst of that dismal 6-23-0-2 start to its season. He went on to lead the team in scoring that season, posting 25-25-50, then finished second with 46 last year.

Akeson was an elite playmaker in his junior hockey career, and has shown some of that skill during his first two professional seasons. He led the team in scoring with 55 points in his rookie year, and he is on pace to do that again this season after recording 40 points in 49 games. The winger has ascended the leader board in meteoric fashion in the past month or so, recording 15 points in his past 12 games.

"We're getting the bounces right now," Akeson said, referring to himself and his linemates, Garrett Roe and Tye McGinn. "We played well before, but pucks weren't going in. Now that pucks are going in, it looks good. We've played together before, so it's fun. We're enjoying it right now."

Gustafsson's has been more of a gradual climb.

He left Northern Michigan at the end of his junior season and immediately made a splash with the Phantoms, posting seven points in his first five pro games. He posted 49 as a rookie in 2010-11, but injuries and call-ups to the NHL have slowed his ascension down in the past two seasons. However, Gustafsson is not exactly complaining that Akeson surpassed him while he was playing in the NHL.

That's ultimately what it's all about. If the two of them go scoreless in two games this weekend and get called up to the NHL on Monday, they will be perfectly fine with never breaking Hamel's record.

To help their chances of a big-league call-up, however, they're both targeting specific improvements.

Akeson began the season in the ECHL to make adjustments in his two-way game, and it looks like that has paid off. He is now being used on the Phantoms' penalty kill, which is ranked 11th in the AHL at 84.6 percent entering Saturday. He spent the summer working on improving his speed, and continues to do so. He believes that, along with his scoring punch, could be his ticket to the NHL.

"Speed is everything now in the new game," Akeson said. "You can never be too fast, and you're ahead of the game if you're quicker than somebody else. Speed is going to play a huge factor in my career and in everyone's career."

Gustafsson thought he played well in Philadelphia during his latest 11-game call-up, but is aiming at improving his consistency. Down games, mistakes and giveaways seem to be put under a microscope when an NHL team is fighting for the playoff spot and has a player on a two-way contract. They can send that player to the AHL for some extra seasoning without the risk of losing him on waivers.

"You want to play well and you want to impress the management and the coaching staff so they keep you there," Gustafsson said. "For me, it's tough. I want to make plays. Sometimes the best play is just (off the) glass and out. Sometimes, you have to recognize that. It's little stuff like that I have to keep working on and try to keep in my mind."

Here's what Phantoms coach Terry Murray had to say about those two making the jump to the NHL:
"It's about executing at a high level on a consistent basis. You literally need to, in both cases, get near an all-star performance kind of effort on a yearly basis. Then you know that the player is playing every game, coming to the rink every day with the right kind of attitude, preparing to be able to play his best and doing it at critical times. When a team is expected to win, those are the players that are leading the way. To me, that's where players need to be in order to, again, not just get a taste of it, not just go up for a cup of coffee -- where they actually have a breakthrough and they're going to be a part of an NHL team."
More after the Connecticut game,


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