Going to the next level

It was a Friday night during the holiday season in Rochester, N.Y., and Tim Schaller was exhausted and annoyed.

He had played perhaps one of his worst games as a member of the Rochester Americans, the Buffalo Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate.

After the game, he was called into Rochester coach Jack Cassidy’s office for what he figured would be a bit of a tongue lashing. Imagine his surprise when Cassidy said something to the effect of, “?‘Tim, you didn’t have a great game, but you’re going to play in Montreal (for the Sabres) tomorrow night. So think about how you played and what you can do to change that on your way there.’?”

Cassidy went on to tell Schaller how happy he was for the Merrimack native, who played one year at Merrimack High School before shifting to juniors on his way to becoming one of the top defensive forwards in Hockey East at Providence College.

“That was a heck of a day,” Schaller said. “That night in Montreal was probably the best game I played all year. I was really skating well and giving out hits.”

But Schaller’s storybook holiday time got even better. A couple of games later, the Sabres were taking on the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden, a place he revered growing up and he had watched the Bruins win the Stanley Cup a few years earlier.

“I’d see them playing on TV and you just would wish you were there,” Schaller said.

Well not only was he there the night of Dec. 21 but he also scored a game-tying goal – his first in the NHL – before the Bruins eventually won in overtime.

“It was probably the best night of my life,” he said.

That whole stretch of days set the stage for a season of ups and downs – as in call-ups to Buffalo, being sent back to Rochester, a process that hit double figures (10 times) as the winter went on.

“It was one of those things I didn’t know where I’d be playing the next night,” said Schaller, who is now spending the spring and summer back home in Merrimack with his brother David. “I couldn’t fall asleep, waiting for the phone to ring. One of those things where you really just have to get used to it.”

There was one stretch that saw Schaller playing four games in four nights, including two weekend games in the AHL, flying to Dallas and then a game in Buffalo.

“You just have to live in the moment, take it day by day,” Schaller said.

Now he looks ahead. The two-year free agent deal he signed out of Providence back in the spring of 2013 is up, and the Sabres organization is going through some changes as Buffalo head coach Ted Nolan was fired. But Schaller says the Sabres are interested in keeping him in the fold and something will likely be done “in the next couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, he reflects on what he’s experienced the last couple of years.

In two years with Rochester, he totaled 26 goals and 35 assists for 61 points, and at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he’s a rugged third/fourth line forward type that can be a presence on the ice even if he isn’t scoring. He had just that one goal and an assist with the Sabres in 18 games, but in the AHL this year his 43-point total was 25 points more than in his inaugural pro season.

“Everything happens much faster in the pros, whether it’s the NHL or AHL,” Schaller said. “You always need to be ready, guys are much better and you always need to have your guard up.”

And the switch from the AHL to the NHL?

“Guys in the NHL are much more skilled than the American League,” Schaller said. “I compare that to the difference from college. It’s much more physical and you have to be prepared game to game.”

Schaller had shoulder issues during his final year at Providence, but at the end of the long college season in late March of 2013 he was rewarded with two-way contract offers from two teams – Winnipeg and Buffalo.

“Buffalo just felt like the right fit,” he said.

Coming off shoulder surgery, his first year in Rochester, getting to the level he felt he wanted to be at, “took a little longer than expected. I wasn’t in the shape I wanted to be in, it took time to get used to the pro game.”

But now, he feels he’s at the top of his game.

He had more points with the Americans than he felt he or anyone else expected. And now it’s time to take the next step as he hopes to be an NHL regular.

“I played 18 games in the NHL and I learned a lot,” Schaller said. “I learned what I need to do to succeed in that league. I’d be a third or fourth line guy. I have no doubt in my mind I can make Buffalo in the fall.

“I just try to stay positive.”

After the strides he made this season, there’s no reason not to be.