ROCHESTER – On April 5, the Americans began the third period of a pivotal late-season tilt trailing the Marlies 3-0. Twenty minutes later, buoyed by fourth-line center Tim Schaller’s natural hat trick, they had rallied for a stunning 4-3 victory in Toronto.
Schaller had four goals in 65 AHL games before scoring three times in a 14-minute stretch.
“I didn’t think it would ever happen, but it did,” Schaller said last week inside the Blue Cross War Memorial. “I had my stick on the ice in front of the net and good things happen.”
Good things have been happening recently for Schaller, an undrafted 23-year-old the Buffalo Sabres signed from Providence College last spring. The rookie is arguably the Amerks’ hottest skater as they open the Calder Cup playoffs tonight at home against the Chicago Wolves.
Schaller has quietly developed from an unknown into a legitimate NHL prospect during the past few months.
The Vermont native scored four more goals in the final three regular-season games, giving him 11 in 72 appearances.
“I know that I can score in this league, and I think that’s the confidence that I needed,” he said.
The last few weeks have been Schaller’s best since college.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “This might be the best I’ve played ever. I have a lot of confidence right now. I think that’s the one thing I’ve been looking for all year. Slowly but surely I found it. So it’s pretty fun.”
While the goals illustrate his growing comfort and confidence, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound youngster is a defensive forward with a penchant for physical play.
“That’s part of my game,” Schaller said. “I’m not satisfied if I don’t hit someone every night.”
Schaller projects to be a third- or fourth-line center and a penalty killer in the NHL, Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy said.
“He’s a very strong skater,” Cassidy said. “He’s very powerful and he’s very aggressive physically.”
That aggressiveness cost Schaller six games into his senior season, when he tore his labrum hitting an opponent.
He had two options.
“They said I could shut it down and get surgery in November,” Schaller said. “But I said I need to play for my team. So I fought it off for the rest of the year and got surgery after the season.”
Schaller gutted out the final 32 games of 2012-13 with a bad shoulder, earning honors as Hockey East’s top defensive forward.
The long recovery cost him all of his first professional training camp. He missed Rochester’s opener and immediately had trouble acclimating to the physicality, tempo and lifestyle of pro hockey, Cassidy said.
“Quite honestly, there were parts of the year, certainly in the beginning of the year, where he really struggled,” Cassidy said.
Developing out of the spotlight has helped Schaller. The Amerks feature a slew of prospects, including four of Buffalo’s recent first-round picks.
“I think that a lot of these guys come in and they’re highly touted and the spotlight’s on them,” Cassidy said. “Everybody wants them in the NHL today or yesterday, and I think the players feel that pressure.”
There is no rush to promote Schaller to Buffalo.
“It’s really benefited him not being relied on as a go-to guy every night, where he can kind of work his way through it without that pressure,” Cassidy said.
Schaller believes that is “good for me.”
“It urges me to kind of want to be in the spotlight, it makes me work that much harder seeing the guys get interviewed after the game, whatnot,” he said. “You want that for yourself.”
These days, Schaller also wants the puck, Cassidy said.
“I think there was a time in the season where I think he felt like he couldn’t do anything right when he had it, turning it over or somebody took it from him or he didn’t make the best decision with it,” Cassidy said. “A lot of that could be mental and physical fatigue.”
He added: “You can see the confidence that he has, the confidence he has with the puck and with his linemates has really catapulted his game to where it is now.”