ROCHESTER – Jacob Bryson saw an opportunity materialize late in a tie game Wednesday and pounced on it, aggressively leading the Americans’ attack.
Three or four months ago, the Buffalo Sabres' defense prospect likely would have made the safe play with 11 minutes remaining in a tight contest.
“I might’ve been a little timid to make plays like that, just a new coaching staff, my first year pro,” Bryson said following the Amerks’ 3-1 loss to the Utica Comets in Blue Cross Arena. “It comes with confidence, and I’ve played a lot of games now. I kind of know what to expect, and I think I have the ability to make those plays.”
So the rookie zoomed into the left circle and adroitly fed defenseman Zach Redmond in the slot before goalie Michael DiPietro stymied the chance.
The scoring opportunity illustrates Bryson’s slick playmaking ability and growing confidence. Bryson, 22, has rapidly developed during the second half this season, earning big minutes and praise from Amerks coach Chris Taylor.
“He’s headsy, he works hard, he’s focused on what he wants to do, he keeps it pretty simple,” Taylor said. “He doesn’t try to do a lot of different things. He’s simple and he gets his feet moving and he uses his strengths, and his strength is he can escape guys.
“He’s very intelligent, but I just like how he makes simple plays, and all of a sudden that’s the right play.”
Bryson said: “I try to keep it simple, because I know that’s part of our game plan, make the simple play if you can. Sometimes I like to do a little extra, like that play (Wednesday).”
On Wednesday, the 5-foot-9-inch, 179-pound Bryson also created winger Taylor Leier’s power-play goal, carrying the puck to the Utica blue line before moving in front of DiPietro.
“He was our best defenseman,” Taylor said of Bryson’s performance.
If Bryson, a fourth-round pick in 2017 (99th overall), keeps progressing, he will likely earn a recall from the Sabres at some point.
“He’s just the whole package,” said Redmond, Bryson’s defense partner all season. “He reads plays really well. He reads offensively and defensively what he needs to do. That was just a good showcase of everything he can do and what he’s about.
“I’m excited for him. He’s got a really good career ahead of him.”
The potential genesis of Bryson’s second-half surge came Jan. 22 in Cleveland.
Bryson looked comfortable in the American Hockey League from the get-go following his three-year career at Providence College. But after playing the Amerks’ first 40 games, Taylor scratched Bryson and relayed a message, telling him he experienced something similar early in his playing career.
So Bryson studied the action on the ice in the Amerks’ 3-2 overtime win against the Monsters from high above in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
“I have never done that before,” Bryson said of being a healthy scratch. “I mean, it was different. I think it did help. In the back of my head, I was like, ‘I can be a really good player here,’ and I was watching it from up top, and I think that helped a lot.”
He added: “I guess from there out I’ve been playing good hockey lately.”
Taylor said sometimes taking a step back helps a young player, especially someone fresh out of college. Bryson played only 42 games last season, with his college career ending at KeyBank Center in the NCAA semifinals.
“You’re coming from college and you don’t play a lot of games and probably things went a lot smoother because he probably dominated the league, and this is a tough league,” he said.
Bryson has compiled two goals, 11 points and a plus-4 rating in 18 games since being scratched. Overall, he has two goals, 20 points and a plus-10 rating in 58 appearances.
He scored his elusive first AHL goal Feb. 19 in his 52nd outing before getting another the next game.
“That’s kind of a confidence booster, and now that I know that I can put the puck in the back of the net, I can just kind of play with that in the back of your head,” Bryson said. “It made the game a lot easier, I think, as far my confidence goes and ability to make plays.”
The Amerks, who have lost five of their last seven games (2-2-3), have scored two or fewer goals five times in that stretch. On Wednesday, they pumped 37 shots on goal. “We got to get more guys in front of the net, we got to get better shot selection,” a frustrated Taylor said. “Our shot management, it seems like we’re always going high. We don’t get second and third opportunities." ... The Amerks play road games against the Belleville Senators on Friday and Saturday. ... Defenseman Casey Nelson returned Wednesday after an upper-body injury sidelined him 10 games. ... The Sabres returned goaltender Jonas Johansson to the Amerks on Friday.