Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-20-2018
Usually when I'm talking with Rochester Americans broadcaster Don Stevens at this time of the year, we're doing a recap on the season. Rochester hasn't made the playoffs since the 2013-14 when they dropped a five-game series to the Chicago Wolves (STL) with names like Phil Varone, Luke Adam, Chad Ruhwedel, Brayden McNabb, Joel Armia and Mike Zigomanis on the roster.
It's been all downhill for Rochester since that playoff loss as the parent-club Buffalo Sabres went through a scorched-earth rebuild that burned them as well. Since then they've finished in 28th place followed by consecutive 26th place finishes before they headed into this season with a new front office beginning this season.
"It's been a long dry spell," Stevens told me yesterday prior to joining the team on the bus ride to Syracuse where Rochester begins their five-game series with the Crunch (TBL) tonight. Stevens, "The Voice of the Rochester Americans" for over 30 yrs. called this season a "great turnaround" and a "fun year" as the new regime lead by Buffalo GM Jason Botterill and his assistant Randy Sexton iced a competitive team that "made the games exciting."
The Amerks hit the ground running with consecutive wins before going on a three-game losing streak and getting outscored 12-3 in the process. But they caught fire after that with points in 23 of their next 28 games (17-5-6) to finish out the 2017 portion of the schedule knocking on the door of first place in the North Division. A mid season rough patch saw them losing games but still getting points in the extra sessions. In all the Amerks would tie an American Hockey League record by playing in 29 overtime games in a season (12-17.)
Regardless of the tough stretch, the Amerks came on near the end of the season going 7-2-1 including a 4-2 win at Syracuse in the season finale. In all Rochester went 4-5-1 against the Crunch.
Stevens sees a pretty even matchup between the two clubs. Overall the teams were separated by more than two goals only once (a 4-0 Crunch win,) six games were decided by one goal with three of those in the extra session.
Rochester and Syracuse are 90 miles with proximity breeding a good rivalry. The Crunch has had much more success as of late with playoff appearances in now five of the last seven seasons and Stevens sees this series as a "spirited one" maybe because of chip Syracuse might have from the last time they met. Back in 2004 the Amerks defeated the Crunch on the road in of Game-7 when Norm Milley scored in overtime. Botterill was on the ice at the time (in the crease after crashing the net hard) and current Amerks head coach Chris Taylor was also a part of that team. Syracuse blew a 3-1 series lead and at the time was only the fourth team in AHL history to blow that lead and lose a Game-7.
Lindsay Kramer of Syracuse.com called it a "painful memory" and began her piece on that playoff series by writing, "Playoff revenge has been 14 years in the making for the Syracuse Crunch when it comes to their long rivalry with the Rochester Amerks"
The two teams have met only three times in the Calder Cup playoffs with the Amerks winning all three series while sporting an 11-4 record in those games. The first time they met was in 1996 and the Amerks beat them 3-1 while on their way to the Calder Cup Championship. The two teams met the following year with Rochester sweeping Syracuse 3-0 (for a recap of those visit Let'sGoAmerks.com.)
Amerks captain Kevin Porter is no stranger to the Calder Cup playoffs. The 32 yr. old has played in 30 AHL playoff games and was an Amerk the last time Rochester was in the postseason. Porter and Botterill spent the last two seasons in the Penguins organization and the new general manager, who was intent upon fixing the mess in Rochester, brought Porter in from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization to help guide his AHL club. He finished the season with 17 goals and 25 points on the season.
Porter was an obvious move for Botterill as he knew that bringing him in would not only add experience, but he was also bringing in a winning mindset from Pittsburgh.
But that was just one of the moves the team made. They also brought in the Amerks center Colin Blackwell who's been hot down the stretch with 28 points (13+15) in his last 25 games including goals (10) in seven of his last 10 games. He was voted as this year's Unsung Hero for the Amerks. Veteran defensemen Zach Redmond and Stuart Percy were also brought in by the club and anchored Rochester's defense through the early part of the season while a group of youngins were getting their feet wet.
Amongst those youngins was forward CJ Smith who was voted as the team's Rookie of the Year and first year pros Brendan Guhle and Sean Malone. Defenseman Guhle plied his trade mostly in Rochester but also got a good taste of the NHL while playing in 18 games for the Sabres. West Seneca native Sean Malone was a healthy scratch for the first three games of the season but never missed a game after that and was named the team's most improved player.
In between the vets and the first year players are forwards Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey and goalie Linus all of whom have spent most of their three pro seasons in Rochester. Baptiste has played in 157 AHL games total and split this season between Rochester (36 games) and Buffalo (33 games.) Bailey has played in 159 AHL games and has appeared in 52 games for Buffalo.
Goaltender Ullmark has been the Amerks No. 1 goalie for the last two seasons and was named Team MVP in both. "He's been huge (for Rochester,)" said Stevens of the 6'4" 221 lb. netminder, "not only in stature, but he's come up with some tremendous saves at the right time."
Stevens talks about the matchup between these two I-90 rivals as one that should be fast-paced and pretty spirited. He pointed out that the two teams have the same goals-for on the season but that Syracuse had the better goals/against this season and he also pointed out that the Crunch lead the league in times shorthanded. Syracuse was shorthanded 376 times during the regular season but were saved by their third-best 84.8% kill rate. The Amerks had the 12th-best powerplay unit in the league.
The Amerks also had very balanced scoring. As pointed out by Stevens, they did not have a 20-goal scorer yet they finished 10th in the league with 234 goals. Rochester was lead by another vet, Sahir Gill, with 18 goals on the season. Blackwell, Smith and Porter all had 17, Redmond, Seth Griffith and Kyle Crisuolo had 15 each while Malone and Hudson Fasching tallied 12 goals for the Amerks.
It's playoff time in Rochester and the city is geared up. Three years is a long time to be struggling like the Amerks have and it's good to be talking playoff hockey instead of doing a season recap.