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Success with Amerks providing NHL opportunities for Criscuolo

Kyle Criscuolo was getting ready to head to Blue Cross Arena on Sunday morning when he got a call from Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor.

And for the first few moments of the conversation, Criscuolo was a bit worried.

"First he said I wasn't playing. Then he said 'you're suspended,' " Criscuolo said.

Nah. No suspensions or benching. Taylor was just kidding.

"Then he told me I was going up," Criscuolo said. "But he got me for a moment."

Criscuolo was scratched from the Amerks lineup after he was recalled by the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday to be inserted into the lineup for Monday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's the second recall of the season for the forward after he made his NHL debut with the Sabres during an eight-game stint in November.

"He's had a terrific year down in Rochester," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "When we brought him up earlier in the year, he didn't get any offensive production. We sent him back down to work on his game. He's provided that for Rochester. This is why he's getting an opportunity."

In his eight games with the Sabres he failed to record a point and was a minus-4. But in his second full season of pro hockey, the 25-year-old Criscuolo was ready to work on his game. He listened to the message the Sabres staff gave him when he went back to Rochester. He worked on finding his niche and perfecting his strengths, so that he could carve out a valuable role for the Sabres.

"You're always trying to develop your game, but they told me to keep working on faceoffs," Criscuolo said. "Work on my play at both ends and to make sure that you sort of have a niche here that can be plugged into the team and help them win games. That's the message they sent me."

Message received. Criscuolo leads the Amerks in goals with 15, including three on the power play, one short-handed and four game-winners.

The American Hockey League doesn't keep stats on faceoffs, but Nicholas Baptiste has noticed Criscuolo's penchant in the circle. Baptiste got to play with Criscuolo when the two were in Rochester this season. They will be back together in Buffalo, as Criscuolo was centering a line with Benoit Pouliot and Baptiste.

"That was something in his game that I think he wanted to improve," Baptiste said. "He was good at faceoffs, but he wanted to be the guy that could go out there and win draws constantly and I saw him putting in the work in Rochester. That was something he was keyed up on and now that he's up here, he's going to show everyone how he improved in that area.

"He's so tenacious on the puck so he has the puck a lot. He's very good at both ends of the ice which is so fun for me to play with because he can play with my speed but he can also push the pace on guys. He's an all-around great player."

There's now a group of five players on the Sabres who spent significant time in Rochester this season. While the call-ups are for a variety of factors – injuries, a languishing Sabres team, reward for hard work in Rochester – there's a comfort level that can help with confidence when walking into a locker room with friendly faces.

"It's exciting because these guys for the most part are all my age," Baptiste said. "It's nice to come up and have guys you can relate with in many different areas off the ice as well as on the ice. It's nice for me. I've been up here for a little while so I can kind of help out. Not that they need much help, but it's just the familiarity that they have with me back in Rochester."

The Sabres also recalled Brendan Guhle from Rochester on Sunday, and the organization's No. 1 defense prospect played his third game of the season Monday night. He had one assist in two games in January.

After returning to the Amerks, he missed three weeks with a lower-body injury.

"He played terrific last time he was up here," Housley said. "We wanted to continue to have him up or bring him up again, but he got hurt, which set him back. But recently he's played terrific hockey, so I think it's an opportunity for him to get back to where he was in bringing some good speed and joining the rush."

Guhle was again paired with Casey Nelson, his defense partner earlier in the year with Rochester.

"We're expecting to pick up where we left off," Nelson said. "We both move our feet quite a bit up and down the ice. Defensively, we're aware and defensively sound. I just think we can move the puck out of the zone as quick as we can, get it in our forwards' hands and maybe join the rush now and then."

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