Until warmups get underway at the Sun National Bank Center at roughly 6:30 PM, it’s unlikely that anyone besides those in the Trenton Devils locker room will know which goalie will get the nod as the opening night starter.
Will it be fifth-year pro Dave Caruso, who is likely to play his third full season in Trenton?
Or will it be Jeff Lerg, who for all intents and purposes will be playing out his rookie season?
During the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Caruso played a combined 32 games at the AHL level, but spent all of last season in the capital city. He’s fine with coming back for a third season, largely in part to an increase in the level of competition in the league.
“You can always work on stuff at whatever level you’re at,” Caruso said.
“There’s a couple things I definitely want to work on, and I want to do that every day. You definitely want to be up at the higher level. Who doesn’t want to be at a higher level and compete up there? But this level last year was the best year I’ve ever seen of the level of play in the ECHL. I’ve been here a few years, and it was very good. And I think this year’s going to be even better than last year, just looking around the league and looking at our team. There are some pretty good players out there playing in the ECHL.”
Caruso put together a solid campaign last year, coming on strong at the second half to post a 21-20-2 mark with a 3.06 GAA and .908 save percentage. While he could have explored other options with different organizations that could have given him a better opportunity to advance his career, Caruso was content with returning to the Devils for another season.
“I really like it here, and I feel like they really like me,” Caruso told me.
“So it was just the right opportunity and the right situation. I wasn’t going to get anything better somewhere else, and I probably could have got a worse opportunity somewhere else. I know they like me, I know I like being here. It’s good here. They treat you very well from the top to down here in the ECHL.”
As for Lerg, he only got two games under his belt with Trenton last year, recovering from injuries to both knees. Upon returning home, Lerg got right to work, doing some lifting to strengthen his legs and become more explosive this season.
“When I got here last year, I was more concentrating on the goalie aspect of everything and getting into hockey shape,” he said.
“I pushed myself really hard and I thought it was the hardest I’ve ever worked. I really committed my time to it and added a lot of leg strength. Physically, I feel probably the best I’ve felt going into a season. I’m really fired up for the regular season to start and to be part of a team again.”
As for those two games, one went well and one certainly didn’t. Overall, his 5.50 GAA and .810 save percentage last season certainly don’t blow anyone away. But Lerg hasn’t put too much emphasis on what happened in either game — whether it be the win against Johnstown or the loss against Reading.
“You can’t really think too much into them,” he said.
“I’ve obviously played more minutes now in camp and in pre-season than I did all of last year. It was a tough thing, because I wasn’t comfortable at all in there. I didn’t have any confidence going in, I hadn’t played in 13 months. It was just a tough thing. It was good to get in there obviously, to say I got in there and got my first pro win. But as far as adapting from the college game to the pro game, I didn’t really get much out of it because I would have felt uncomfortable playing in a college game, and I’d already played in a hundred-something of those already. Now, I think I’ll learn a lot more as the season goes along for sure.”
Anyone judging Lerg by that last game against Reading, in which both he and his teammates got blown out of the water following the letdown of missing the playoffs, would be mistaken, he says.
“Obviously, that was a tough night,” he said.
“The coach and the GM and the players all said it was the worst game they played all year. If I was healthy, maybe I would have kept it a little more respectable, but by no means was I to take any fault for that. I think it’s just the 72nd game of the season when you have nothing to play for, so it was just a tough night for me to be in there.”
This season, Trenton’s hopefully to have plenty to play for as the season winds down, as on paper, it seems this year’s team has a much better chance of contending for a playoff spot.
“I feel like two years ago, they played very well when I wasn’t here, and last year, it was a better league,” Caruso said.
“We had a good team last year too, but I feel like the league’s going to be good this year. You can look at things on paper all you want, it’s how you perform. You’ve just got to play well and come together as a team.”
As for Lerg, he’s got some extra motivation this weekend, hoping to get revenge on that Reading team that handed him his first pro loss.
“I’m excited to get a rematch with them this weekend, I’m definitely looking forward to that,” he said.
“That game really stuck out in my memory, and it always drove me to work a little harder in my workouts. I’m sure we play them a lot, and hopefully I can get back on track against them and send them a message that last year was a little fluke and things will be different.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com