RALEIGH — Speed is the biggest difference.
And let's not forget the goaltending.
The Carolina Hurricanes have brought in players in revolving-door fashion this season from the Albany River Rats, their American Hockey League affiliate. And though most already had played some NHL games, two made their NHL debuts.
Jerome Samson did that Jan. 7 against the Nashville Predators. Another forward, Drayson Bowman, started and played more than 10 minutes Saturday in his first NHL game, a 5-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers.
The biggest adjustment on the ice, from the AHL to NHL?
"It's the speed," Bowman said. "The rate you have to make decisions up here is definitely a lot quicker.
"I don't necessarily think it's skating speed. I think the guys are always in the right spots, always on top of you that much quicker. They force you to make the decisions that much quicker."
Forward Jiri Tlusty played 72 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs but also spent time in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies. Obtained by the Canes in a trade Dec. 3, he had been in 23 AHL games this season for the Marlies and Rats before a recall by Carolina on Jan. 5.
"I think the biggest difference is the guys in the NHL are much smarter," Tlusty said. "They don't give you much space on the ice. In the [AHL] a lot of the players are young and don't have the experience, so sometimes they peel off and give you some extra space - space you don't get in the NHL.
"And the transition in the game is much quicker. You have to keep moving your feet. You can't ever just stand still on the ice, not in the NHL."
The quick change of possession and the speedy transition game often exposes the AHL player on the defensive end, Canes coach Paul Maurice said, forcing indecisiveness.
"In the American League, the puck just gets moved slower, so you have more time mentally to adjust to a change in possession," he said. "Here, it just happens so very quickly, and if you're a half-second late on a change of possession, you never catch that guy you're supposed to have.
"So young guys come in and they just give ice to everybody. If they're in their defensive posture, they're giving that guy three, four more feet to just buy themselves some time."
And there aren't many weak goaltenders. Nearly every game, the AHLers see someone robbed of a potential goal by the quick instincts and smarts of an NHL goalie.
"You're not getting the goals you'd get in the AHL," said forward Patrick Dwyer, who has been recalled from the Rats three times this season and played 23 games. "There's no catching a goalie off-guard. You're facing the best of the best every night. You have to work that much harder, and when you do get a chance you have to bear down."
The Canes recently brought up forward Zach Boychuk, their first-round draft pick in 2008, for seven games. Boychuk was reassigned Sunday to the Rats, because injured forwards Chad LaRose and Sergei Samsonov appear ready to rejoin the Canes' lineup.
Maurice said both could play tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning but that a decision would be made after today's morning skates. If both are ready, Bowman could be reassigned.
Brandon Sutter has gone from the River Rats' lineup to the Canes' second-line center this season. Another former Rat, defenseman Brett Carson, has played 19 games this season for Carolina.
Carson, 24, has battled some of the top forwards in the NHL - Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to name two - and more or less held his own.
"Obviously, the top-end players have a lot more speed then the top-end guys in the American League," Carson said. "But smarts may be the biggest thing. Guys know how to move into the offensive zone, and as a D-man, it's tough to find them.
"Guys like Ovechkin, you never know where he's going to be. Guys are so smart in getting open and finding places where they have time to get shots off."
The Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk did that. After the Canes rallied Saturday with third-period goals by Jussi Jokinen and Ray Whitney for a 3-3 tie, Kovalchuk got open in the Canes' zone and scored the winner with 10:07 left.
"All it is," Carson said, "is playing games and finding those spots and finding out where those guys are going to be. I guess it also helps if they get to those spots quicker so the speed comes into play. It's the speed and the smarts."
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