ROCHESTER — C.J. Smith said he kept telling Rochester defenseman Will Borgen he should get into a fight.
After nearly a year in the AHL, Borgen had not yet been in a scrap. Smith knew his 6-foot-2, 187-pound teammate would hold his own.
“I kind of pushed him to get in one,” joked Smith, Borgen’s friend and roommate.
On Feb. 20 against the Cleveland Monsters, Borgen finally fought, dropping 6-3, 185 Ryan MacInnis by unleashing several wicked right swings as the crowd in Blue Cross Arena roared.
The frenzy of punches didn’t disappoint Smith.
“I was pumped up watching that fight,” said Smith, who was with the Sabres when Borgen fought MacInnis.
Smith added: “He was throwing some bombs.”
Borgen, 22, looked like a seasoned fighting pro.
“It was wild, I guess,” said Borgen, a fourth-round pick by Buffalo in 2015, 92nd overall. “I mean, I’ve never fought before, so I didn’t know what to expect.
“It’s not like you’re going out there trying to fight someone. It was just the heat of the moment, it just happened.”
While Borgen, 23, rarely fights, the prospect “loves the physical style of play,” according to Amerks coach Chris Taylor.
“(He’s) hard to play against and makes people pay a price,” said one scout who has watched Borgen regularly this season.
Considering Borgen’s penchant for contact, it’s surprising it took him 58 AHL games to come to blows.
“He’s definitely grown a lot of respect around the room in what he’s been doing,” Taylor said. “He’s getting better every game.”
Borgen left St. Cloud State following his junior year and was coached by Taylor for eight games last year. Still, Taylor said Borgen’s physicality and conditioning during training camp surprised him.
“Ever since then, he’s really defined himself as a good defenseman but also a person we can rely on in the offensive (zone),” Taylor said. “He’s brought some offensive upside to him. He joins the rush, he makes really good plays at the blue line. His offensive side of the puck is really good as well.”
Borgen possesses above-average speed, but so far, his offensive numbers — two goals and eight points in 57 contests — aren’t eye-popping.
But Taylor said Borgen, who represented Team USA at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games last year, has continued to develop his offense. Taylor occasionally utilizes Borgen on the power play and he likes the way the rookie can get shots on net from the point during five-on-five action.
“You kind of don’t think of that at the start,” Taylor said of Borgen’s offensive abilities. “Then over time, it’s like, ‘Wow, where did this come from?’ It’s like he keeps getting better and better right before your eyes.”
Borgen showcased some of his offensive prowess Feb. 16 in Syracuse, moving into the slot and burying Yannick Veilleux’s pass under the crossbar.
Ultimately, however, Borgen’s grittiness and defensive abilities could help him reach the NHL.
“He’ll finish hits,” Smith said. “He just plays a hard game, really simple. He’s just kind of a reliable D.”
Syracuse pushed past the Amerks and into first place with 75 points in the North Division on Wednesday when the Crunch beat Utica, 5-2.
The Amerks had been in sole possession of first place or tied since October. Both teams have played 58 games. They meet three more times this season.
Notes: The AHL suspended Amerks winger Remi Elie one game for an illegal check to the head of a Crunch player in Sunday’s 4-1 home loss. Elie will sit out Friday’s home game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. … Smith, a winger, has compiled 14 goals and 28 points in his last 24 outings going back to Dec. 5. Overall, Smith has scored 20 goals and 46 points in 45 games. … Amerks goalie Scott Wedgewood’s 22nd win Saturday set a new career high. In his last 10 starts, Wedgewood is 5-3-2 with a 1.99 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.