The snow let up early and the Phantoms practiced in the afternoon, so I had the chance to swing by the Civic Center and talk to Zack FitzGerald about his Friday night. Glad I did. Here's the story.
By MICHAEL CIGNOLI
GLENS FALLS – After sitting out four games as a healthy scratch, Zack FitzGerald wanted to use Friday night to deliver a statement about why he belonged in the Adirondack Phantoms’ line-up.
Deliver he did, and FitzGerald punctuated that message with a trio of exclamation points.
He kick-started a team that had been outshout 16-3 in 15 minutes by fighting Syracuse Crunch heavyweight Eric Neilson at center ice, schooled a Calder Cup-winning goaltender on a breakaway for Adirondack's first goal in a week and had another spirited tussle with Neilson later in the game.
The defenseman-turned-winger’s performance was the message from Adirondack’s Thursday morning team meeting – that players needed to play more impassioned hockey – personified.
“Going two times and then scoring a goal on a breakaway – that, to me, is a Gordie Howe hat trick,” Phantoms coach Terry Murray said. “He deserves a lot of compliments for what he did.”
The fact that FitzGerald, regarded by his teammates and coaches as a vocal leader in the locker room, went out and did it after sitting out for four straight games was a clear motivator for the Phantoms.
They responded by erasing Syracuse’s 2-0 lead in exactly eight minutes.
“He just came on the ice and fought twice and had a goal,” Phantoms winger David Laliberte said after practice Saturday. “That showed character and we just wanted to build from that. It brought inspiration for the team. When you have a teammate like that on the team, it’s unbelievable.”
There were some aspects about FitzGerald’s performance that even he couldn’t believe.
For one, who would have bet FitzGerald, he of the 11 career AHL goals and 1,424 career AHL penalty minutes, would be the one to snap Adirondack's team scoreless drought of 147-plus minutes?
Yet that’s exactly what the enforcer did in 5:37 into the second frame – on a breakaway, nonetheless – when a Crunch defenseman bobbled the puck at the blue line. FitzGerald snatched up the loose puck and skated in on Dustin Tokarski, faking out the goalie before roofing a shot over his blocker.
“I don’t know how I beat him,” FitzGerald said. “Honestly.”
He said the goal was one of the best feelings he’s experienced in his eight-year professional career.
“It all happened so fast,” FitzGerald said. “I saw the puck go in, so I was excited, but it was so quiet. It was like ‘Did that count? Was that a goal? Were we off-sides? Was there a whistle?’ Then I saw everybody coming and (Phantoms defenseman Danny Syvret) came up just with a wide-open mouth. Then it kicks in. You scored, and it’s exciting because it puts us back in the game.”
His two fights also gave the Phantoms some renewed life.
The Crunch went up 1-0 after dominating the first 14:33 of play, but FitzGerald talked Neilson into a fight off the ensuing center-ice face-off and the Phantoms didn’t allow a shot the rest of the period.
The two went another round midway through the second period, and the Phantoms outshot the Crunch 8-2 over the period’s final nine minutes and change. Laliberte scored on one to tie it 2-2.
“When you see a fight like that, it’s just inspiration for your teammates,” Laliberte said. “You just want to go and play for him. He’s showing character over there, so you just want to play for him.”
Adirondack ultimately fell 4-2, but has a rematch with Syracuse at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Civic Center.
FitzGerald will probably be in the line-up again, if only because the Phantoms currently have no healthy players in reserve. But FitzGerald’s recent play will make it tough for Murray to scratch him when forwards Tyler Brown (illness) and Garrett Roe (upper-body) are back to 100 percent.
That is FitzGerald’s plan.
“I wanted to make a statement that I want to be in the line-up,” FitzGerald said. “Whether it’s just getting in that fight to get the boys excited, scoring a goal or a big hit.”
Doing all three Friday certainly did not hurt FitzGerald’s case.
“There’s no question that an energy player like Zack can make a difference in his way, which carries over to team play,” Murray said. “You respond to that. The players respect the hardest job there is – maybe – in going out every day and maybe getting your face punched in. There’s no fun in that, but he accepts it. The players acknowledge it and they respond to it.”
A couple items that didn't really fit there, but are worth passing along. Murray had a lot of positive things to say about FitzGerald, who has been remarkably positive about the entire season considering he's been a healthy scratch 26 times in 45 games. It's evident that FitzGerald just loves the sport.
“He’s a rink rat,” Murray said. “I think some day when he retires, he’s going to be the Zamboni driver someplace just to hang around the rink. He’s a character guy and he is a character in the locker room. The players have a lot of fun with him.”
One of FitzGerald's trademarks is making a honking noise -- there's no way to type this out -- around the rink. He has said it's inspired by boats in the harbor back in his hometown, which blow their horns to communicate with a bridge. When told about Murray's comments, FitzGerald had a good laugh.
“Yeah, I like that. I’ll be a Zamboni driver any day,” FitzGerald said. “That would be good. That would be fun. I could have my own horn and everything.”
FitzGerald, in celebrating his goal Friday, gestured toward off-ice officials in the penalty box. He appeared to pantomiming winding an old film camera, and said Saturday that's what he was going for.
“I’ve been playing against Syracuse for a long time," FitzGerald said. "Those same guys have been there since I was a rookie. They know me pretty well and I know those guys. I say hello to them every time and bang on the glass. ‘Fitzy, how are you?’ and ‘We knew you were going to be in here.’ I had to give them a laugh.”
Apologies for the terrible video quality, but it's the only way I knew
how to get it here. Figured some video was better than none, right?
More before the Syracuse game Sunday.
Until next time,