By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
HAMILTON, N.J. – The Titans had just gotten back from a one-game trip to Dayton, where the last-place Bombers had embarrassed them by the score of 7-1.
Titans coach Mike Haviland sat down his rookie defensemen, Jerramie Domish, Rosario Ruggeri and Stephen Wood, and laid it on the line.
They could not play like rookies any longer.
That talk and being paired with Steve Munn seemed to transform Ruggeri from a rookie failing to meet the expectations of a fourth-round draft pick to someone who could be trusted on the ice in the final minutes of a one-goal playoff game.
The maturation of Ruggeri and his fellow rookie defensemen is one of the many reasons the Titans are leading the Florida Everblades 2-0 in the Kelly Cup Finals with Game 3 taking place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sovereign Bank Arena.
Game 3 is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Game 4 is at 7 p.m. on Saturday. If necessary, Game 5 would be played on Monday at 5 p.m. Tickets for all three games are on sale now at the Sovereign Bank Arena Box Office, by telephone at (609) 599-9500 and online at TicketMaster.com.
The youngest player on the Titans, just 20, Ruggeri knows he has come a long way since that meeting with Haviland.
Ruggeri had a minus-6 plus-minus rating and two assists in an eight-game stretch before the meeting. After he was a plus-12 and had nine assists in the final 15 games of the season.
He has played all 16 games for the Titans in the playoffs, has two assists and is a plus-4.
Ruggeri felt the key was getting plenty of ice time when the Titans were thin on defense and knowing Haviland had faith in his abilities.
“When Haviland took us aside, he told us, we are a big part of the team,” said Ruggeri. “No matter how old you are, you are going to have a big responsibility. We need you guys to go far. I took that in and really accepted it. I was happy he had confidence in us.”
Ruggeri is a perfect compliment to Munn. At 6-foot-1, 214 pounds, the 20-year-Montreal native now plays basic, rugged defense.
“We work so well together,” said Munn of Ruggeri. “He plays well beyond his years. He is keeping it simple. Our role is to play hard on the other team.”
It has not always been easy for Ruggeri, who struggled coming out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he had 22 goals and 73 assists over his last two seasons with the Chicoutimi Saqueneens.
“I have matured drastically,” said Ruggeri. “Munn and Vince Williams told me I really took control and progressed the way I should. They really took me under their wing. They remind me to keep things simple.”
Ruggeri was the forgotten man midway through the season when he was forced to sit out a month with a bout of mono, it was not long after his return Feb. 23 he started to make his positive transformation.
“It is night and day,” said Haviland of the difference between Ruggeri at the start of the season and now. “It is not a fluke he got drafted so high. He has matured as a man, too. It took a little adjustment to the whole lifestyle.
“He has come on and simplified his game. I think he has improved by leaps and bounds.”