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SLIGHT SWOON CONCERNS AMERKS

Most hockey teams would snicker at the notion that two games could constitute a serious losing streak.

The Rochester Americans aren't laughing.

All season the Amerks hadn't gone successive games without registering at least one point. The last time they lost two straight in regulation was February 2004.

That was before this weekend. The American Hockey League's best team blew a two-goal, second-period lead Friday night by giving up four unanswered goals to the Cleveland Barons. It wasn't the effort the Amerks were looking for after an embarrassing 6-1 defeat to the Hershey Bears last week. Both losses happened at home no less.

The Amerks' skid extended to three games with Saturday night's 4-2 road loss to the Albany River Rats. Albany took a 3-1 lead just 50 seconds into the third period on Brian Gionta's power-play goal, but the Amerks closed to within one when Chris Thorbun scored with 6:12 left. Ryan Murphy ended Rochester's hopes with goal with 42 seconds remaining. Goaltender Tom Askey stopped 21 shots in the loss.

The Amerks can only hope their prior dominance in HSBC Arena can help them overcome their spring swoon at 5 p.m. today against the St. John's Maple Leafs.

"We're not going to panic or anything like that, but I think we have to look in the mirror a little bit and know that they haven't played their hardest," Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said after Friday's loss. "I truly believe these guys are taking an easy way out. That's what we can't do."

What has the Amerks a tad nervous about their losing streak is the timing of it. There are only eight games and two weeks left in the regular season. They clinched a playoff berth long ago and are scant points away from clinching the North Division title. They are six points and five victories away from breaking those franchise records.

But all the regular-season achievements they've piled up over the past five months won't mean squat if they stumble into the postseason and get bounced early.

The Amerks need to be sure this hiccup doesn't turn into a choke.

"I don't know if we're coasting, but maybe we're just not working as hard as we need to," Amerks center Geoff Peters said. "Everybody's gotta go home and take a look at their own game and ask, 'What am I doing wrong?' "

Even when the Amerks staggered out of the gate this season, getting off to a 1-4-2-1 start, they never went two games without earning at least one point.

But the Amerks began to sputter about three weeks ago. Heading into Saturday night's game they had won only two of nine games without needing overtime, going 4-3-1-1. They have been without center Derek Roy (concussion) and winger Mike Ryan (knee), but they have played well through injuries all season.

Last week, in response to the March 25 blowout loss to Hershey, Cunneyworth directed his men through grueling practices in hopes of snapping them out of their malaise.

"We're preserving energy in a lot of ways," Cunneyworth said. "We've gotta go out there and let it all hang out and not save anything anymore.

"We have to get it going. We've been trying to turn it on for several games. We have to get to playing a little desperate hockey and get it kick-started here."

But the Amerks produced another unacceptable clunker Friday against the Barons.

"A team like Cleveland, I think we should beat them," Rochester captain Chris Taylor said. "Even if we give three-quarters effort and we're on half our game I think we should beat them. That just goes to show how bad we played."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com